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Obituary: Paul Martin

by
25 March 2022

Warburton Gallery 

Malcolm Doney writes:

PAUL MARTIN, who has died, aged 73, of pancreatic cancer, was a painter whose work can be found in the collections of the Royal Academy, the British Museum, and the BBC. His artistic practice was rooted in nature: he was preoccupied by the “scratchy, tough reality of things”. But his locations, and the figures that sometimes peopled them, were more metaphorical than representational: familiar, but also other-worldly.

Paul was born in 1948 in Bournemouth, but grew up in Rugby. Not especially academic at school, he excelled in sports, representing Warwickshire at rugby and swimming, and leading a national schoolboy gymnastics team in Austria in 1964. He joined a local band as the drummer, an ensemble — Pinkerton’s Assorted Colours — that went on to score an unlikely top-ten hit with “Mirror, Mirror” in 1966.

Beneath these interests, Paul’s abiding love was for the visual arts, leading him to study painting at Birmingham School of Art in the late 1960s and the Royal Academy in the early 1970s. Birmingham was dominated by Abstract Expressionism, and the Royal Academy’s more traditional methods focused largely on life-drawing. Paul’s eccentric individualism, combined with an emerging Christian faith, meant that he felt at home in neither environment, describing those years as ones of “productive disagreement”.

In the early 1970s, he met Sandra Collins, then studying English at the University of Manchester. They were engaged within a week, and married within the year. They were together for more than 50 years.

Leaving the Royal Academy, the couple set up home in St Albans, Hertfordshire; Paul taught part-time at several schools and art colleges. With a growing family, he applied for a full-time teaching post, ending up as art master at Rugby School for the next 20 years. Although painting was his true calling, he was a talented and inspiring teacher. Doc Martin, as he became universally known, was a dreamer, but also a maker: an integrated approach that he passed on to his students, many of whom went on to become artists in their own right.

An artist of enormous energy and application, he began to make a name for himself with large and often semi-narrative paintings, with themes and figures drawn eclectically from the Bible, ancient mythology, and contemporary life. The stories and images were elusive, allusive, and deliberately unexplained. And Paul enriched these with a customised version of a traditional encaustic technique, which involved hot beeswax and ground pigments, and also sand, grit, and other organic ingredients. The surfaces were pitted, scarred, and abraded: the quality of the surface became as important as the images themselves.

Paul’s evolving faith had, during this time, led him to migrate from the strict Evangelical Baptist tradition of his youth to an immersion in the much older tradition of Orthodoxy, in whose rich iconographic heritage and stately liturgical forms he felt more profoundly at home. He took up the practice of icon-writing himself, though he made a clear distinction between this and his personal art practice. That said, there was a tangible transfer of style and content which, almost by osmosis, passed into his paintings, giving them a distinctiveness that spoke to a growing number of collectors.

After his retirement from Rugby, the final ten years of his teaching career were spent in Edinburgh, as a lecturer and tutor at Leith School of Art, an independent art school, with a gentle underlying ethos of Christian spirituality. A major shift in his work happened in this period. The human figure disappeared from his paintings, and he became preoccupied with the physical landscape. He rejected notions of the scenic or picturesque: his paintings became a tapestry of media, including small found objects (even false teeth on one occasion) and fragments of beach glass, sand, ash, and various home-made compounds.

These weren’t abstracts, but looked as though they had been excavated or stripped from the earth. He drew inspiration from thinkers such as the medieval Scottish priest and scholar Duns Scotus, the 20th-century Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke, and the French priest and palaeontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. With these, he shared an intuition that God was not a remote figure beyond the universe, but was somehow present in the very fabric, the materiality, of creation. He liked to talk of a Logos that was seamlessly enfolded in the nature of things.

In the year leading up to Paul’s illness and death, it seems that his working was beginning to shift yet again. He had prepared the ground, as it were, and figures shyly, tentatively, made their way back into the frame. He was still, in his mid-seventies, alive to new horizons, new possibilities.

His wife and three sons survive him. After Paul’s death, his son Henry found this quote from Teilhard de Chardin written in one of his notebooks. It makes a fitting epitaph: Throughout my whole life, during every minute of it, the world has been gradually lighting up and blazing before my eyes until it has come to surround me, entirely lit up from within.”

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