Ours for eternity? Saving the home of artist Martin Sharp

Emilee Geist

The estate is worth more than $10 million, but there’s scarcely enough cash in the bequest to maintain the house and grounds, much less convert and run them accordingly. In London, in the ’60s, Sharp bumped into Eric Clapton in a Kings Road club and ended up writing two of […]

The estate is worth more than $10 million, but there’s scarcely enough cash in the bequest to maintain the house and grounds, much less convert and run them accordingly. In London, in the ’60s, Sharp bumped into Eric Clapton in a Kings Road club and ended up writing two of Cream’s best songs (Tales of Brave Ulysses and Anyone for Tennis) and drawing a definitive album covers for their Disraeli Gears and Wheels of Fire. “Sometimes,” says Sharp trustee Luke Sciberras, who as a young painter spent several years living at Wirian, “the money from the Cream songs Martin wrote is the only money coming into the house at all.”

The dining room was sometimes a place for eating and drinking tea, and sometimes just another painting studio.

The dining room was sometimes a place for eating and drinking tea, and sometimes just another painting studio.Credit:Elizabeth Farrelly

The trust has tried everything. “We’ve had lunches and meetings and cocktail parties and morning teas at the house,” says Sciberras. “We’ve had endless tours for the directors and curators and boards of the AGNSW, the National Art School; we’ve spoken again and again to politicians and Ministers – Don Harwin has visited twice – and everyone is full of enthusiasm. But we just haven’t yet found the right form for such a gift, the right template…”

‘Don Harwin has visited twice – and everyone is full of enthusiasm. But we just haven’t yet found the right form for such a gift…’

Trustee and artist Luke Sciberras

So can it be kept? Should it? Who will pay? This is not a simple question. What qualities, in the end, give a house meaning? More pointedly, what makes a house meaningful not only to its owners but to its culture as a whole? What makes it keepable?

As a rule, houses are preserved either for their architectural value or for their famous inhabitants.

The first category includes those architectural icons to which the world’s archi-tragics make pilgrimage; Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House and Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoie (on the outskirts of Paris). Ironically, these astonishing objects are, as a rule, such ruthless expressions of theory as to be virtually uninhabitable.

It is what happened at Wirian that makes it important.

It is what happened at Wirian that makes it important.Credit:Elizabeth Farrelly

Fallingwater, at Mill Run in Pennsylvania, destroyed its clients’ favourite picnic spot for a house that, spanning a waterfall, was structurally saggy and irredeemably damp. Mies’ house for Dr Edith Farnsworth in Illinois is, even now, breathtakingly lovely but purchases that loveliness at the expense of privacy. Farnsworth complained that she couldn’t even have a rubbish bin in the house, much less get undressed. Both are now museums.

These were not accidental flaws. The same unflinching commitment to doctrine that made the houses great also made them uninhabitable. Farnsworth is both great and uninhabitable because of its ruthless pursuit of simplicity, transparency and purity. Fallingwater is both great and uninhabitable because of its determination to span the waterway in a series of tumbling horizontals. This greatest-flaw-equals-greatest-strength conundrum is architecture’s core paradox.

Other houses are considered important not for their architecture but for the lives they held. This category runs from the grand but dull, such as London’s Hampton Court, to the extremely modest, like Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam.

Martin Sharp's bed surrounded by a mix of bourgeois china ornaments and eclectic pop art.

Martin Sharp’s bed surrounded by a mix of bourgeois china ornaments and eclectic pop art.Credit:Elizabeth Farelly

Yet few houses are preserved for what should be the most compelling reason of all; neither the house nor its inhabitant per se, but the relationship between the two. This is a third, slender category of keepable house. Shaped not by doctrine but by the intimate entanglement of denizen and dwelling, they yield a gestalt more glorious than either.

A Hogwart's style central staircase winds down to a heavily decorated surrealist piano.

A Hogwart’s style central staircase winds down to a heavily decorated surrealist piano.Credit:Elizabeth Farrelly

The editors of OZ at the time of their trial in 1964. From left, Richard Walsh, Martin Sharp and Richard Neville. 

The editors of OZ at the time of their trial in 1964. From left, Richard Walsh, Martin Sharp and Richard Neville. Credit:Archive

Such a house is Sir John Soane’s Museum, in London’s Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Soane was the brilliant and eccentric architect, collector and mason who designed, inter alia, the Bank of England. Over three decades (1792-1824) he bought and radically adapted three Fitzrovia terrace houses and filled the conjoined interior with convoluted stairs, hidden courts and mysterious top-lit cellars as well as the paintings, sarcophagi, sculptures, follies and myriad curios of his long and extraordinary life. The result is my personal favourite of any house, anywhere.

Sharp’s Wirian is similar. Set on part of the original Piper Estate, Wirian was designed by architects Halligan and Wilton, who also designed the Royal Sydney Golf Club (1922) and the lovely Dymocks building on George Street (1932). Martin inherited the house from his mother and grandmother (of the Ritchie family), who had purchased it from its original owner, Enid Anne Friend, wife of a wealthy grazier.

Now, Sharp’s extraordinary collections of paintings, drawings, toys and archives are layered over the original carpets, furniture and wallpapers. Wirian, both a shrine to Sharp’s unrelenting radicalism and a monument to the haute bourgeoisie, is intriguing for these contradictions alone. But it is also more than that.

The artist's signature tartan scarf and tam-o-shanter rest on a bed.

The artist’s signature tartan scarf and tam-o-shanter rest on a bed.Credit:Elizabeth Farrelly

Sharp shot to fame in the 1960s through his work on Oz magazine. In 1962, Richard Walsh (editor of the University of Sydney’s radical Honi Soit) and Richard Neville (editor of UNSW’s even more radical Tharunka) combined forces to create Oz. As art director and primary artistic contributor they appointed the 21-year old Sharp, with regular input also from Robert Hughes, Bob Ellis and Garry Shead.

Having studied at Cranbrook under the inspirational painter Justin O’Brien, Sharp was entranced by traditional genres and techniques. As a child of his time, though, he deployed these skills in the appropriative practices of pop art. This, and a naturally reverent irreverence, gives his work a fascinating layered quality, part-satire, part-homage.

From these early years, Sharp would often render his “obscene” drawings for Oz in the style of 18th century copper-plate etchings. Later, he’d superimpose Goya’s cheeky nude onto Whistler’s ultra-stern mother, depict Hendrix in the explosive style of Jackson Pollock, insert astronaut Neil Armstrong into Van Gogh’s Starry Night or deliver a self-portrait in the pointilism of Seurat (but with an indigenous flag in one spectacle-lens).

Sharp's drawing of another obsession, ukele-player Tiny Tim.

Sharp’s drawing of another obsession, ukele-player Tiny Tim.Credit:Elizabeth Farrelly

In the early sixties, though, such attitudes were shocking. The establishment, as if determined to hurtle the Oz boys on a trajectory of fame, hit them with first one obscenity charge, in April 1963, and then, in February 1964, another. Accused by the Vice Squad of giving “undue emphasis to sex”, using “pimply-minded” slang and creating a cover that lampooned the famous Tom Bass sculpture in the pedestal of the P&O Building on Hunter Street as “no ordinary urinal,” the trio was sentenced to three to six months hard labour. With public support from both Mick Jagger and John Lennon, the convictions were quashed on appeal – but not before they had each garnered a criminal record.

Inevitably, by 1966, Neville and Sharp were in swinging London. There, with fellow Australian Jim Anderson, they resumed publication of Oz. Contributors included Germaine Greer, Philippe Mora, Lillian Roxon, Michael Leunig and a very young Deyan Sudjic, later editor of Blueprint and Director of London’s Design Museum. This time, the obscenity trial made the Sydney version look like a dry run.

Sharp’s involvement in the UK Oz had all but ceased by the time its editors were charged with conspiring to corrupt public morals (which carried a possible life sentence) for dealing, in the words of the prosecutor, with “homosexuality, lesbianism, sadism, perverted sexual practices and drug taking”. And although they were eventually acquitted, the nastiness of the prosecution can only have entrenched the radicalism of all involved.

Returning to Sydney in 1970, Sharp established the famous Yellow House on Macleay Street, Potts Point. Occupying the two terrace houses that had been the Clune Gallery, venue for Sharp’s first solo show, it was a pop-version of Van Gogh’s yellow house in Arles. (There, in 1888 Van Gogh, in his mid-forties, finally secure four rented rooms where he could paint and have friends, such as Paul Gaugin, to stay.) For three years (1970-73) Sharp’s labyrinthine Yellow House became a hyper-energised live performance space involving a pantheon of Sydney talent in 24-hour happenings; theatre, film and cabaret.

The Wirian entrance hall, like every other room, is all but covered in a exuberant amalgam of Sharp's obsessions. among them Luna Park, Van Gogh and Eternity man Arthur Stace.

The Wirian entrance hall, like every other room, is all but covered in a exuberant amalgam of Sharp’s obsessions. among them Luna Park, Van Gogh and Eternity man Arthur Stace.Credit:Elizabeth Farrelly

So when Sharp moved into Wirian in 1973, these two ideas – art as a layering of genres and house as living, three-dimensional art work – merged. Sharp embarked upon a 40-year project of making this genteel mansion into a living mind-palace of his ideas, beliefs and obsessions. Tiny Tim merged with ‘Eternity man’ Arthur Stace, Mickey Mouse cavorted with Van Gogh’s peasant, Marilyn Monroe popped like a sunflower out of Van Gogh’s vase and Ginger Meggs popped up in a Japanese woodcut, representing the schoolboys who died in the Luna Park Fire.

“It’s not often you get an artist who can be funny,” comments film producer and collector Margaret Fink. Sharp could be funny, but he was also deadly serious.

Artist and trustee Luke Sciberras at the Martin Sharp house.

Artist and trustee Luke Sciberras at the Martin Sharp house.Credit:Elizabeth Farrelly

Although people of all kinds would turn up at all times of night and day, Wirian was never a party house. Indeed, an almost puritan work ethic prevailed. “There was never anywhere to recline or be in repose,” recalls Sciberras. “Every chair was upright. Every glass was like a thimble. He could be painting in the dining room and eat in the ballroom. In fact, the whole house was a studio.

“He was happy if we were working. If I was ever sitting on the terrace reading a paper, or at the kitchen table having a cigarette, Martin had this fantastic habit of bursting in, kicking the door open, taking a polaroid photo and sending it to Peter Kingston. So Kingo has this collection of shots of me not doing anything. It was Martin’s elegant way of saying “this isn’t a holiday camp.”

Peter Kingston confirms possession of at least one such image, of Sciberras sound asleep in a wing-back armchair with the caption: “Luke hard at work.”

Joyce Morgan, arts writer and Sharp’s biographer, notes Wirian’s role in nurturing Sydney’s art mind and in bringing people together. For instance, she says, it was a 1998 lunch that Martin held at Wirian to introduce Sydney Opera House Trust chair Joseph Skryzinski to sculptor Lin Utzon – then living at Wirian – that initiated the 1999 reconciliation of her father Jorn Utzon with his most celebrated building.

The lower terrace overlooking Rose Bay where Sharp would often paint.

The lower terrace overlooking Rose Bay where Sharp would often paint.Credit:Elizabeth Farrelly

Wirian, filled as it is with Sharp’s collections of paintings, sculptures, toys, papers and videos, is steeped in Sydney’s cultural history. Will it be kept? Should it be?

To sell would not be a disaster for the trust, since the money could be used to set up funds and scholarships elsewhere. The disaster would be for the house itself, which would likely be bought by its neighbour, Cranbrook, and demolished (although the school declines to confirm or deny this possibility). To farewell both this astonishing cultural icon and the opportunity to nurture budding artists so close to its harbour and heart would also be an irreplaceable loss for Sydney.

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