The Life of An Artist: An Interview with Martin Yeoman

Martin Yeoman ( is a British painter, draughtsman, etcher and sculptor who has works in many collections, including those of The Royal Collection, British Museum and The National Trust. His works are also in many notable private collections, including the personal collection of HRH The Prince of Wales.

My conversation with Martin, starting with his journey prior to the Royal Academy Schools, follows his career: looking to the past, but also to the future. Many thanks must go to Martin for his insightful responses.

Martin Yeoman by Richard Dawkins (Image: Martin Yeoman)

T.C. You had a slightly alternative route to the RA Schools, could you tell us a little bit about that? Do you think your artwork and career would have been different if you had gone into art school straight from school?

M.Y. There is here an important point I want to make, about youth and wanting to be an artist, what stands in your way, what choices you ultimately make, where you break your own beliefs and where ultimately you fail. I don’t know if having what is called a natural facility in drawing or being gifted is seen as either having an unfair advantage or just being thought of as clever.

Not going to art school straight from school allowed me to stumble forward and find out what it was that I wanted. In 1968, whilst at school, I was introduced to Pop Art at the Hayward Gallery and the modern works in the Tate (now Tate Britain). It was during this time that I remember visiting David Hockney’s first big show at the Whitechapel. Of course, all these works had their influence on me, and for a while, I wanted to be like them and fervently visited the major galleries, and the independent galleries down Cork Street.

But I also admired a lot of other work in the Tate from earlier periods. It was quite common in art schools then (and possibly now) to start young minds afresh instead of adding to your understanding of drawing, as it was in my case by the time I reached the RA Schools. A clear example of this would be during my search for a place to study after India when the Head of Fine Art at Reading University told me that, ‘we no longer draw here and that if you were to come here, we would encourage you to change and be like us’.

The fact of taking a job after school that related to art also played its part. Working in Selfridges advertising department as a runner and paste-up artist, I often had to visit Clerkenwell, which was the centre of the printing industry back then and not the smart place that it has become today, that was an experience, but I quickly realised I was in the wrong career. So too did Mr James, the Manager who really needed a copywriter rather than an artist and I was eventually let go and moved on to the display and design department. This new job at least gave me more room to draw and be creative pictorially. It was here I was introduced to the art of Alphonse Mucha and all things Art Nouveau (and where I think I first started looking at Toulouse Lautrec). I was asked to make drawings using the Art Nouveau style. I felt very proud at the age of seventeen to have had those drawings (enlarged photographically), forming the prominent display in every one of Selfridges shop windows down Oxford Street.

That feeling did not last, and later on I can remember sitting at my drawing board one afternoon at the very top of that building, saying out loud to myself, ‘I wish I could meet someone who could really draw’ (years later that wish took the form of Peter Greenham RA, who was the then Keeper of the RA Schools).

In the summer of 1973, you left England. How did this come about? What had your plan been?

During the morning coffee break, I often used to meet with other members of the display department at a cafe across the road. There was some growing dissatisfaction amongst the team generally, which grew stronger and stronger and one day someone suggested we all leave and go overland to Kashmir! I loved the idea of ending the travels in the presence of mountains, as for the past few years, I had been taking myself off to the Lake District every spring to walk and draw. Apart from this, I had no other thoughts or plan. I didn’t prepare working materials as extensively as I would today but instead armed myself with some surprisingly similar materials, Daler Rowney sketchbooks, pencils, pen and ink, oil pastels and a small pocket camera, the latter being something I would never include today. Pretty soon though the idea of grouping together with your friends seemed to have the effect of closing me off from the world and I quickly grew tired of it.

Following the Indus | Northwest Pakistan, 1973, 110mm transparency (Image: Martin Yeoman)

Eventually, I was heading out across Asia having hitched a lift with a German mountaineer in a VW camper bus that took me to Kabul. It was the start of my travels, and from Kabul onwards, things gradually began to change for me. Back in the 60s and 70s, a lot of people headed for India, with the idea of finding themselves spiritually, this often involved attaching themselves to religious groups and taking an active part in their various daily mantras with the hope and aim of enlightenment, but this was not for me. Neither was sitting in a hotel garden in Kabul, listening to The Rolling Stones, and wondering why I had travelled so far to be amongst the very same culture that I had left behind, only now with the added discomfort of giant bed bugs attacking me as soon as the lights went out.

A sheet of drawings, Kabul and Peshawar, 1973, 41.9 x 29.9 cm (Image: Martin Yeoman)

What impact do you think this journey had on your art, and indeed on the course of your life?

On these early travels, I drew but not fervently, and I also took photographs. In the Hunza Valley, I can remember looking over that great valley and wondering how I could begin to draw it, I feebly attempted it but then took the easy option and took a few photographs instead. Ironically, now when I look through those photographs, I take a lot of pleasure from them. Time has itself lent a few of those photographs the quality of a painting by a whole range of the great nineteenth century artists that I love, by the subtle colours and tones and also by the natural decomposition of the chemicals that make up a slide. That aesthetic quality is plain to see, now that they’re transferred into digital files.

Detail: On inspection of this photograph, the decomposition resembles that of Craquelure. On the way to the Hispar Glacier | Northwest Pakistan, 1973, 110mm transparency (Image: Martin Yeoman)

Travel seems to have played a big part in your life, how have the places you have visited impacted on your artwork?

As I have just hinted at, there has been a certain amount of nostalgia attached to travel. Mountains, of course, played a part but it was in the city of Lahore, along with the gritty and grimy reality of it, that this became serious for me.

Running down to my last pennies and the accompanying realisations that followed, about the things that meant the most to me, all helped me to discover what it was that I wanted. These were that people rather than the landscape fascinated me, above all their faces, and the great realisation that human nature does not change, no matter where you are in the world.

Young man with a scarf, Lahore, 1974, 38.1 x 27.9 cm (Image: Martin Yeoman)

One of my lodgings in Lahore was a tiny room on the very top of a very cheap hotel. As I remember, the room was built of breeze block and left in a raw state, you couldn't open the door fully, because the single cot type bed took up practically all the interior space and the room had no windows. This turned out to be an advantage, because as soon as I awoke, I got up and out, and started walking the streets, drawing whatever interested me. What was so exciting about that time was that everywhere I looked, all human activity was there, ready to be drawn, unlike at home where most things personal and work-related happened behind doors.

The place was a gift for the artist, and it was around this time that I had parted with my camera to raise some much-needed money. After it had gone, the realis