Frank Graeme Martin, sculptor: born Portsmouth, Hampshire 27 December 1914; Head of Sculpture, St Martin's School of Art 1952-79; married 1939 Edna Downton (two sons, two daughters); died Clacton-on-Sea, Essex 19 January 2004.
For 20 years from 1960, Frank Martin was the cornerstone of the new sculpture. As head of the sculpture department at St Martin's School of Art in London, he brought into being a new approach to the teaching of art and presided over the several changes in the form and the realm of sculpture which were the precursors of what we see today.
In his student days in the 1930s, Martin had been assistant to the sculptor William McMillan. He had a big, well-developed body and he posed for the central figure Titan on the fountain McMillan made for Trafalgar Square. In the Second World War Martin served in the Royal Marines; during the Italian campaign he built a jetty for landing craft under intense enemy fire, for which he was mentioned in despatches.
Born in Portsmouth, he loved the sea and for most of his life lived beside it. In the late Forties he was one of the first in Britain to snorkel and scuba-dive and he initiated life-saving projects to rescue those trapped underwater using diving techniques. With his two sons he saved the lives of several yachtsmen.
After the war, Martin continued to study sculpture at the Royal Academy Schools. He was an impressive sculptor in his own right, working mostly in stone and terracotta. His two life-sized standing terracotta groups of Adam and Eve, built hollow, were not only great technical achievements, they were also full of feeling; sadly they have been destroyed.
When, in 1952, he took over as Head of Sculpture at St Martin's, Martin devoted his energies to building up the department. There were then no more than half a dozen students doing sculpture, more or less as a hobby. When he retired in 1979, the large department, still based in the same rooms, was known and respected worldwide.
Martin created a kind of workshop atmosphere, with no hierarchy whatever. He did this by his policy of inviting his most promising students to stay on as teachers. The central activities were making the art, discussion and criticism. In the Seventies he had the breadth of vision to split the department into the more formal B course and the more Surrealist or conceptual A course. Experiment and growth flourished: up until the Eighties nearly every well-known sculptor in England had studied at St Martin's.
The choice of his staff was always Martin's alone, and his sculpture teachers could rely absolutely on his support. He trusted his judgement of people and he endorsed exploration, experiment - even seemingly outrageous projects that would never have been countenanced under a less inspired leader. Without his encouragement success would not have come to St Martin's; he has not been given the credit that is his due.
In the art world the attention given to shows like the "New Generation" at the Whitechapel in 1965 (mainly St Martin's students' work) or the furore caused by ex-students' work made the department a target, not only of other art colleges, but also of the administration within the school itself. But Frank Martin had no hesitation in challenging accepted approaches if they did not match up to present-day needs and, if that meant taking on the Establishment, so be it. He took criticism on the chin and fought back, without concessions to an easy or acceptable approach. For 20 years he kept the department at the front of new sculpture anywhere in the world.
Martin was utterly unpompous. He had a great sense of humour and a willingness to listen. His friends and his students loved him - they knew they could count on him for guidance and support. He was there, like a rock.
Anthony CaroReuse content