Martin Sharp, His Life and Times by Joyce Morgan

A captivating new biography places Martin Sharp’s art in context.
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Book cover image: Martin Sharp, His Life and Times by Joyce Morgan via Allen & Unwin.

Joyce Morgan was drawn to Martin Sharp’s art before she knew who he was. This is unsurprising considering Sharp’s art circulated in many pop cultural forms over the course of his long and varied career. T-shirts, album covers, cartoons, songs, and posters were all part of Sharp’s creative output, as well as painting, film and even residency at Sydney’s Luna Park funfair. Sharp operated in the popular imagination with boldness and wit, an artist for whom distinctions between high and low art were unnecessary.

As a teenager growing up in Liverpool in the 60’s Morgan cut out and kept a magazine picture of Mr Tambourine Man, Sharp’s dazzling psychedelic portrait of Bob Dylan. She brought the picture with her when she emigrated to Australia. She had no idea who had created the image, nor did she in later years when she wore t-shirts with Sharp’s iconic Eternity script and Ginger Megg’s appropriations.

In 2003 Morgan, who is an arts editor and journalist, commenced a series of interviews with Sharp for the Sydney Morning Herald. These conversations, along with over thirty years of Sharp’s correspondence with friends, form the basis of her new biography Martin Sharp: His Life and Times.

Full of colourful details and eccentric characters, Morgan traces the artist’s path through the  fascinating social milieu he lived in. From his privileged private school beginnings in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, his time at the epicenter of swinging London to his later years at his Bellevue Hill mansion/artistic community Wirian. Sharp maintained many close friendships throughout his life, in fact as Morgan points out being surrounded by people was essential to his creative process.

Sharp’s studios were a constant parade of humanity and friends, lovers and hangers on provide perfect fodder for a biographer. Romantic dreams of an artistic community led Sharp to set up The Pheasantry in London in the 60’s, where Eric Clapton and Germaine Greer were housemates. The Van Gough inspired Yellow House back in Sydney in the 70s saw Sharp collaborate with other Australian luminaries such as Brett Whiteley, George Gittoes, and Peter Weir. And at Wirian where Martin lived and worked till his death in 2006 he entertained the likes of David Gulpilil and Princess Eugenie.

During his formative years as cartoonist and countercultural warrior Sharp proved to be a master wit and social commentator. This got him in hot water on more than one occasion and his irreverent contributions to the satirical magazine Oz during the 60s, lead to the magazine’s editors being dragged through the courts. Morgan’s recounting of the ensuing courtroom drama becomes a parable of moral conservatives clashing with the intellectuals and artists of the defense – amongst them John Olsen who compared Sharp to Hogarth.

Sharps’ art often drew on childhood references and he shared a visual intensity with his artistic hero Van Gough. The youthful sense of optimism about Australian culture, and the role of the arts within it, was a constant thread for Sharp. In later years however, this morphed into a deep sense of injustice, after a fire on the Ghost Train ride at his beloved Luna Park seven people perished. His association with the amusement park as its artist in residence weighed heavily on Sharp and this coupled with a growing religiosity became evident in his art.

Sharp retreated into his studio and life at Wirian in his later life. He was described as a recluse, but as Morgan points out, he was a recluse whose ‘Mickey Mouse telephone rarely stopped ringing…the world came to Martin’.

Morgan has brought to life the richness of Martin Sharp’s context and how instrumental art that he produced. There are so many absorbing details and connections that have been meticulously researched and brought together for the reader; the biography is an important contribution to Australian art history as well as the legacy of this artist.

Rating: 4 1/2 stars out of 5

Martin Sharp: His Life and Times

Joyce Morgan

Category: Biography & Autobiography
ISBN: 9781760111755
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Imprint: Allen & Unwin
Pub Date: February 2017
Subject: Biography: general 
Sama Hugo
About the Author
Sama Hugo is a Melbourne based writer.