Artist blossomed in the age of psychedelia
In the late 1960s, teenage bedrooms across Australia bloomed with posters and none was more dazzling and congested than Martin Sharp’s orange and black image of Bob Dylan. In a single decade Sharp had fine-tuned an art form that distilled discovery and rebellion into a steady stream of psychedelic record album covers, posters, and magazine and book covers using fluorescent colours and reflective metallic paper — notably album covers for Cream and posters of Donovan and Jimi Hendrix.
Lowell Tarling’s Sharp is an odd biography, the first of a two-volume set. Indeed it’s not even quite a biography but rather a string of concertinaed reminiscences of the artist and activist drawn from Tarling’s interviews with Sharp, who died in 2013, and his closest friends.
It is nonetheless a diligently researched and highly satisfying roll call of the main players here, in London, and on the US west coast who dominated the cultural scene in the 1960s and 70s. Tarling illuminates the extraordinary cross-pollination among the theatrical, literary, musical, art, film and advertising worlds in these decades.
Sharp was born in Sydney in 1942, the day of the first Japanese air strike on Papua and New Guinea. One side of his family were wealthy industrialists who supplied a quarter of the steel used to build the Harbour Bridge. The other side produced a bevy of respected surgeons and medical specialists.
Martin’s earliest years were spent at his grandparents’ house in the eastern suburb of Bellevue Hill. His attendance at Cranbrook School (a grandfather had been one of its founders) would be recalled with both affection and reticence. The atmosphere was one of routine brutality: “That’s the system of those schools, training you to do the same in business when you get out.”
Sharp’s mother, Jo, was devoted to her only son and quick to encourage his early experiments with drawing and painting. Sharp’s exposure to cartoons and comics as a youngster (Boofhead, Ginger Meggs, Superman and Mickey Mouse) would play a part in his later career as an illustrator, psychedelic poster and record cover designer. The classroom of his art teacher Justin O’Brien was a refuge from the bully boys.
Sharp was by all accounts a shy and unassuming boy, but bold enough to lampoon the school when given the opportunity. Nothing escaped his attention or his pen, and concerts at the Sydney Stadium in Rushcutters Bay and the surf culture on the northern beaches claimed him for some time.
Rock ’n’ roll and pop rolled up on his shore, beginning with Johnnie Ray, Johnny O’Keefe, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. The last would shake everyone’s foundations. Tarling writes this of Australian mindset in the 60s: “True blue Aussies … reckoned you wouldn’t wanna be a commie, spag, reffo, Kike, poof, Pom, wog, Ruski, derro, teetotaller … Abo or a woman.” That was about to be challenged.
Oz magazine, the brainchild of Richard Neville, whom Tarling interviewed, Richard Walsh and Sharp, was something of a prank intended to bait the ferociously rigid censorship laws that had come under fire with the publication in 1960 of DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. They lampooned the judges in Oz even as the case was being heard. The young men narrowly avoided jail. And the result? The circulation of the next issue blew out to 40,000 copies.
Next stop: London, where Sharp and assorted friends were swept up in the colour and movement of Kings Road. He found a studio there in The Pheasantry, a colourful nest originally built in 1670 for Charles II’s mistress Nell Gwynn. Sharp welcomed friends and blow-ins from all corners. Germaine Greer moved into the flat downstairs to work on The Female Eunuch, while one Sharp’s flatmates was Eric Clapton — the only one who could stump up his share of the rent. Clapton who made an illuminating observation about Sharp in his 2007 autobiography: “Martin was a very gentle man, with an insatiable appetite for life and new experiences. At the same time he was very considerate and sensitive to others.”
Martin Sharp, left, with Tiny Tim in 1982