Frank Martin

Illustrator and wood engraver inspired by the golden age of Hollywood
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Frank Vernon Martin, artist: born London 14 January 1921; teacher of etching and engraving, Camberwell School of Art 1953-80, Senior Lecturer in Graphic Design 1965-76, Head of the Department of Graphic Arts 1976-80; married 1942 Peg Goodwin (died 2004; three daughters); died London 29 July 2005.

Frank Martin was the quintessential complete illustrator, his legacy a formidable body of work which ranged in subject and mood from the nostalgia of his youth, the wide-ranging interests of his middle years, to the dreams and fantasies of old age. Throughout it all his adoration of women, their intelligence, talent and beauty, is paramount.

He was the son of a professional stage actress of the Twenties and Thirties, and part of his childhood was spent backstage wherever she appeared, inspiring in him a life-long fascination with the profession, later reinforced by going to see every available movie, silent or talkie. He was still a student at Hertford College, Oxford when he enlisted in the Royal Artillery, remaining there from 1941 to 1946. He received an MA in History, but chose not to pursue this, and to go instead to St Martin's School of Art.

He studied wood engraving with Gertrude Hermes, and was her studio assistant for colour printing for a while, later studying etching privately with John Buckland Wright. As a freelance illustrator and wood engraver from 1949 he worked for several magazines, book publishers and private clients, producing a vast number of book covers and jackets, book illustrations and decorative and emblematic engravings, notably for the Folio Society.

In parallel with this, he began the production of large linocuts, then woodcuts, etchings and drypoints, in colour and monochrome, some of which he published himself, while others were published by galleries in Britain and the United States. Fascinated by silent movies and the golden age of Hollywood, he celebrated both in an amazing body of work often depicting the great stars as well as minor ones, building up a loyal following among many contemporary actors, directors and musicians.

The grainy aspects of silent films were often worked up as woodcuts, from the Keystone comedies to Susie Snowflake, with portraits of Erich von Stroheim, Lillian Gish, Chester Conklin and Clara Bow. Other stars, who included Montgomery Clift, Rita Hayworth, Greta Garbo, Constance Bennett, Louise Brooks, Ruby Keeler, Jean Harlow, Marlene Dietrich, Tallulah Bankhead, Barbara Stanwyck and Jessie Matthews were depicted in a variety of styles.

Technically highly inventive, he produced extremely decorative, intricate prints using multiple techniques, including blind embossing and interlocking separately cut zinc plates. Joining the Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts as teacher of engraving and etching in 1953, he was appointed Senior Lecturer in Graphic Design in 1965, then Head of Department of Graphic Arts from 1976 to 1980, after which he retired from the academic world to devote himself full time to his original work.

He developed an almost cinematic technique, in large, complex drawings which each encapsulated a life, a career or a fleeting instant of observation, always beautifully executed, contrasting highly detailed sections with deliberately unfinished aspects. His knowledgeable interest in the Thirties led to detailed images of vintage cars and avant-garde buildings. He had many one-man exhibitions in London, at the Folio Society, the National Film Theatre, the Lyric Theatre Hammersmith, Editions Graphiques Gallery and the Atrium Gallery, as well as others in Manchester, Oldham, Dublin, Berlin, Hamilton, New Zealand, and Cambridge, Massachusetts.

His work featured in several television programmes, notably a section of Late Night Line-up on BBC2 in which his movie-inspired prints and drawings were shown, then merged into the actual scenes which had inspired them. He was a Member of the Society of Industrial Artists and the Society of Wood Engravers (of which he was Honorary Secretary, 1952-59), Fellow of the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers and Engravers, Member of the Graphic Design Board of the Council for National Academic Awards from 1977 to 1981, and Honorary Academician of the Accademia delle Arti del Disegno in Florence, Italy.

A book on his art, Hollywood-Continental, with articles by Victor Arwas and John Kobal, was published in 1988. In recent years, Martin had written and illustrated four large limited- edition books, the most recent of which was Drawn From Life (2005) in which he reminisced about the many young girls who modelled for him over the years, girls whose movements, expressions and personalities he fixed in time, in expressive, sketchy, nervous lines or in highly finished images in which he indulged his sharp talent to achieve a likeness. "I enjoyed drawing from life," he wrote, "and found it a welcome relief from the cramped and solitary work of engraving wood-blocks."

In 1942 he had married Peg Goodwin, and they had three daughters, Tess, Gigi and Mel. The death of his beloved Peg in June last year after a protracted illness affected him greatly: she had, over the years, been the steady anchor for his soaring, quirky imagination. He became increasingly frail, his open, gregarious nature looking forward to the regular visits of his three lovely daughters, his grandchildren and his friends.

Victor Arwas

Comments