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Interview: Henry Martin, artist and former prison chaplain

22 February 2019

‘I didn’t want to reach retirement age and regret never having given art a proper go’

Henry Martin

B-wing yard, HM Prison Manchester

B-wing yard, HM Prison Manchester

Drawing has always been one of my great delights. I’ve never had any qualms about sitting down with a sketch pad wherever I am. On a bright day I’m out and about somewhere in Manchester.

It’s got me into trouble throughout my life, from excessive doodling in school exercise-books to sketching covert portraits in overlong meetings. As a parish priest, I often wanted pictures of Jesus for school assemblies, and, after a while, it occurred to me that I could draw my own. I’ve made these freely available through www.sermons4kids.com and www.freebibleimages.com. In 2018, my images were downloaded 63,702 times, in 177 different countries. I find this staggering.

I specialise in buildings, landscapes, and cityscapes, but often divert into painting people — and sometimes dragons. I take commissions and also sell through exhibitions, art markets, and a gallery in Affleck’s Palace. Some of the bars in Manchester have my prints on their walls.

Henry Martin

My vocation to prison chaplaincy was shaped by the Faith in the City report,
which was hotly debated during my student days at St George’s, Leeds. I then spent a year with Careforce in London’s East End, which was when I began the ordination trail. I found theological training challenging, but I had a couple of excellent tutors who were truly inspiring. Then I spent ten years as a parish priest on the Salford-Manchester border.

HM Prison Manchester sits within the team boundaries, and the idea of one day serving there just grew and grew. People who lead church intercessions often forget the Prison Service; that goes to show that it’s often overlooked, but this work is incredibly valuable.

It was an immense privilege working for the Prison Service, and, on the whole, I enjoyed it very much.

I didn’t realise how many rights an LGBT employee might have till I joined the Prison Service, but were I to receive any discriminatory comments, or feel that people were acting prejudicially against me, there was a very clear path to ensure redress: it’s written into civil-service legislation.

I’m sure I was experiencing God long before I was aware of God. I found a living faith while at school, and I was nurtured for while in a conservative Evangelical fold. I met some wise and kind people there, but, ultimately, I was a poor fit — and that was not even looking at the whole issue of sexuality. I now find myself drawn to the Quakers on a Sunday morning, and to a wonderful inclusive Anglican church on Sunday evenings.

The thing I like about the Quakers is that there are very few strict rules about what you can and can’t believe. I feel I can go and pray or meditate quietly as seems good to me. I like the fact that they are so overtly inclusive — a friendly bunch of people; and I like their commitment to human rights. And also I love the silence. There’s a quality to the silence which is unlike solitary silence. More than 40 people sitting in the same space for an hour praying and thinking together seems to generate something different.

Art has been my second vocation for most of my life; so I’m now seeking to redress that balance. I didn’t want to reach retirement age and regret never having given it a proper go. I’ve recently discovered water-based oil paints, which are great because there’s no turps smell. I always carry pens and watercolours with me wherever I go. I sometimes use acrylics when painting outdoors.

Last August, the Governor of HM Prison Manchester invited me back in to sketch the buildings, as part of the prison’s 150th anniversary, which was a unique privilege. I exhibited my watercolours and subsequent oils in December.

Creating biblical art requires us to engage in a story at an incredibly deep level. I run regular paint-and-pray days at Katherine House, in Prestwich, with a single rule: no masterpieces. I believe anyone can engage with God while they’re painting, even if they’ve never before picked up a brush.

Van Gogh never fails to inspire me. His use of paint is astonishing, and he opens all sorts of windows for me, spiritually and creatively. I love the way Sister Wendy could find spiritual significance in the work of so many different artists. I was given a book of hers on love for my ordination — just 800 words on the pictures she’s chosen; it’s been a lifelong treasure. She sees things I never would on my own. I think that’s the point of art: to allow people to bring their own specific interpretation to a painting.

I wrote Eavesdropping because I’m not a natural pray-er, but I’ve discovered a positive way forward through eavesdropping on conversations in the Gospels, hoping the requests which delighted Jesus back then will still be delightful to him now — prayers such as “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief”; “Save me!” and “They have no more wine.” The same applies to the statements that earned his rebukes, like “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” I think these can enrich our own meetings with Jesus.

Henry MartinFeeding the five thousand
I still do many ministry types of things. I paint, I write, I run quiet days, I do some occasional admin work for the Prison Service, I offer cover at a local URC, and support the work of Open Table — but, after the publication of the House of Bishops’ stultifying report Marriage and Same Sex Relationships, I found my formal position untenable and, with great sadness, I resigned my licence. Decent inclusion of LGBTQ+ people seems doomed to lie for ever in the episcopal long grass. We’ve really missed the boat on this one.

Work and leisure were much better divided when there were prison walls between them. Now, when I’m not painting, I meet up with friends, I go to the pub, and I walk around Manchester with my husband, making plans for whatever is coming next.

My favourite sound is the singer-songwriter John Smith performing live.

High-handed power games played with scant thought for those who suffer the consequences make me angry. And all forms of cruelty to animals. Negligence. Rudeness. Litter.

Everything about travelling with my husband, apart from airports, is what makes me happiest, from the planning beforehand to the reflecting afterwards.

The most courageous thing I’ve had to do was telling a new friend that I was falling in love with him — without first establishing that he was gay. It worked out well: we’ve been together ever since.

God always has a way forward, whatever mess we find ourselves in. Humans can be amazingly resilient. That’s what gives me hope for the future.

My praying’s often messy and inconsistent, but, if nothing else, I aim to sit each day until I’m quiet enough to say the Lord’s Prayer.

I’ve always wanted to meet Sandi Toksvig, though I’m sure she’d rather not get locked up in a church. If I could have her as my companion, our incarceration would pass quickly — for me, at least, if we were discussing life, politics, and humour.


The Revd Henry Martin was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

Eavesdropping: Learning to pray from those who talked to Jesus is published by Darton, Longman & Tod at £12.99 (CT Bookshop £11.70).


Instagram @henrymartinpaintings

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