If you don’t know the name Martin Sharp it’s still likely you’ll be familiar with his artworks. The Australian artist was responsible for designing the covers of Cream’s two studio albums, was the co-founder and principal cartoonist at Oz magazine and produced famous posters of Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix and more. Martin Sharp – His Life & Times is a biography that covers his charmed period living in swinging London and his artistic career and life in the wonderful land of Oz.
This biography is written by former SMH arts editor and journalist, Joyce Morgan, who interviewed Sharp several times from the beginning of this millennium and prior to his passing in 2013. Morgan has meticulously-researched Sharp’s life and this is evident in this detailed and chronological biography. It begins by painting a portrait of Sharp – who was the only child of an only child of an only child – who grew up in a house of privilege and attended private school in Sydney. It was here that he developed a love of creativity and painting thanks to a supportive teacher named Justin O’Brien.
In time Sharp would pursue art as his full-time career. He would blur the boundaries between high and low art just like Andy Warhol. In Sharp’s case, he also had an irreverent sense of humour underpinning his work and this also meant that his output was not without some troubles. In the early to mid-sixties, he and his Oz co-founders Richard Neville and Richard Walsh were subjected to two obscenity hearings and were briefly jailed.
Eventually Sharp would leave Australia for a stint in England. It was the swinging London of the sixties and he had the chance to rub shoulders with various artists and musicians. During this time he created many psychedelic works and he allowed people to crash and live at his place at The Pheasantry. Sharp would adopt this creative and fluid living arrangement on his return to Sydney where he pursued Van Gogh’s idea of a Yellow House and at his final home, Wirian.
Martin Sharp was an exuberant and original individual and this biography captures some of this spirit at times but at other moments you feel like Sharp’s colourful life is not fully done justice, because the writing is purely factual and the chapters could be a little more flamboyant. This book does, however, capture some of the things that he was passionate about like Arthur Stance’s chalked “Eternity” on Sydney sidewalks as well as Luna Park and other Australian icons like the Opera House and Ginger Meggs cartoon. Sharp was responsible for repainting the face of Sydney’s Luna Park and he was also racked with guilt when seven people lost their lives on the ghost train ride fire in 1979. Morgan does a good job of pulling together lots of different events and describing the historic context as well as highlighting the importance and legacy of Sharp’s work.
The biography, Martin Sharp – His Life & Times is ultimately a fantastic primer and introduction to Australia’s most famous pop artist. The book describes his unconventional style and charismatic character, but there are moments where you feel like his colourful personality could have been illuminated a little bit more vividly. This book is one that is rich with detail and well-told and it is one that allows the individuals who appreciate his work to get a glimpse into the creative tour de force behind so many striking images. Thank you for it all Martin.
Joyce Morgan’s Martin Sharp – His Life & Times is available now through Allen & Unwin