The Life of An Artist: An Interview with Martin Yeoman
Martin Yeoman (https://www.martinyeomanartist.com) 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 realisation came like a hammer blow with the new situation I found myself in of just how much that little camera had held me back and taken away, that first need to record. That is, reaching for a camera to catch a fleeting moment rather than to be able to draw rapidly and accurately as all the great draughtsmen had done before.
Indian figures, pen and ink, 7.6 x 10.2 cm. One of a series of drawings in Calicut, of timber mill workers, from one of Martin Yeoman’s more recent trips to India (Image: Martin Yeoman)
You have spent time with HRH The Prince of Wales, how did this come about and how did you find the experience?
In the autumn of 1976, during my second year at the RA Schools, I met Sir Brinsley Ford, the first person to start collecting my drawings.
It was vindication to me of all I had formerly believed in, and it proved to me, that rather than catering to a market or a brief (as I had in commercial art), pursuing the things that interested me, there was the possibility that those subjects may interest another.
It was at Sir Brinsley Ford’s home in London where I first met the Prince of Wales. John Ward who had accompanied the Prince and Princess to Venice in 1985 and had given the Prince painting lessons was also instrumental in my meeting with the Prince and so too was Derek Hill. It was through the example that Sir Brinsley had set of collecting the work of students, which I believe was the key to the Prince of Wales taking, at first, unestablished artists with him when he toured abroad, and I was the first one of them. The tour was a truly incredible experience to have had, along with being given free rein to draw and paint as I pleased without any specific brief, other than working alongside the Prince when time allowed. It was helped along, of course, by its geographical position, the Gulf States is more than a nod to the exotic nature of the Indian Subcontinent, and that life-changing moment I had spent in Lahore in 1973/74. The trip, again confirming to me that as an artist, I have a special and unique position to be able to move freely between all levels of society.
Your artworks are very beautiful, what is your process of creation with them? How long do you usually spend working on each piece?
Over the last two decades or so I have used my drawings, oils and pastels, worked on from nature, as a reference to make something to a different scale, I also use this technique when working on a portrait or figure. This, for example, would mean that if I were to get into difficulty, I would continue to work on the painting away from the sitter or the model, using drawings.
Some works have taken me a very long time, whereas others seem to appear in seconds. Resolving things can happen quickly when at last, I fully understand again what I am after. Light or the gradual fading of it has also played a part in quickening my mind and hand. I have always felt that when I am lost in concentration and have forgotten myself, I do my best work, and it is this state of mind that I hope to reach whenever I am working.
Kochin, Ginger Warehouse, oil on canvas, 24 x 34.5 cm (Image: Martin Yeoman)
I see from your Instagram that you have been moving to a new studio, are you now settled into this new studio? How will this change your working life, and your process with your artwork?
I have gradually begun to work in the new place, and I love it the more I work in it. It has a very steady north light, but it also has three other quite different light sources from the south. These light sources keep the place alive and present opportunities for different views and aspects. The north window has a view over the garden and quite a large slice of changing skies.
Along with the new studio, I also have a separate etching/print room. The room is well organised but not as big. Having space well organised is vital, and it allows me to work on new plates, and proof print them with ease. Making etchings and monoprints is something I did not have time to concentrate on when I was a student. Over the past few decades, I have found it to play an important part, as I do making heads and modelling things in clay.
What are you working on currently? What do you see yourself doing over the next few years?
I am currently working on paintings looking through the north window over the garden, and the surrounding buildings, I have also started a portrait, both of which I want to do more of now there is the space and scope. I want to do more portraits as I am still very keen on taking them further in both paint and also clay.
Do you have an artwork, or a project that you are most proud of? What is it about it that stands out?
The subject I am most proud to have tackled as an artist is the striptease or strip pubs that grew into pole dancing and the proliferation of venues up and down the country oddly known as ‘Gentlemen Clubs’ in the 1990s.
At the Royal Academy Schools, I had spent a great deal of my time in the life drawing room. During that time a thought came into my head about the role of models, both male and female, and I put myself in their place and thought how difficult it must be for them when the moment is reached to take off your clothes to a roomful of strangers on a Monday morning. The idea came and went about strip clubs in Soho and what it would be like drawing in one, or whether it is permitted or not.
Edward Beale, who was a friend and fellow student, lived down the Lambeth Walk and in the 1980s, the pub along the Walk at that time used to have strippers dancing on top of the bar (apparently), but I never went in. Their boyfriends or husbands would wait outside in the car, often with the kids, and this seemed a raw and depressing slice of real life to witness. In the 1990s, I read an article in the Evening Standard about the old strip pubs of London and the new American influenced club that opened in London called Stringfellows. Dai Llewellyn, the author of the article, recommended Browns in Shoreditch as the best of the old type places and I took his advice to visit it with my then girlfriend.
The Red Room, monotype, 30.2 x 40.9 cm (Image: Martin Yeoman)
I was struck and shocked by the matter of fact attitude from the audience to what was happening on stage, and not only could I see this spectacle as a real subject to draw and paint, but also one that I saw could be done on a large scale. It was the polar opposite to the modern-day renderings of classical music concerts that were regularly to be found, for as long as I can remember, at the Royal Academy Summer Show and the New English Art Club.
This subject and scene is one that artists of the past would have naturally taken on in all its various guises. Think of Durer’s etching of the Bath House, for instance, Ingres’ The Turkish Bath or of Degas’ bathing women. With Degas, he wanted to make drawings and later pastels and find attitudes that were uncontrived and unself-conscious. He approached the subject as if he was looking through a keyhole. There was no keyhole to hide behind or to use as a metaphor in this subject.
A few years back, I stumbled across Edward Burra’s painting of a Striptease joint in Harlem. Burra is an artist I have always liked and been intrigued by well before the RA schools. I wonder now if I had seen his painting decades ago and forgotten it, and whether it too had been yet another influence on me to tackle such a subject.
Follow Martin Yeoman on Instagram @martinyeomanartist.