The icons decorating the walls of the small chapel in Glasgow are by the painter Paul Martin, a well known artist who has taught at Rugby School and Leith School of Art. In an article written several years ago, Aidan Hart discussed his paintings and the ideas behind them.
ICONS OF GRACE: THE ART OF PAUL MARTIN
by Aidan Hart
August Rodin’s secret was that he didn’t model surfaces, but modelled the inner forces which
thrust, punched and stretched those surfaces into shape. Similarly, a profile of a person needs to
be more than just an outline: its contours ought to evoke the spirituality and muscle and bone that
work within. But each human person is a profound mystery, hardly known to himself let alone to
others. So how can one dare to undertake a profile of such a mysterium tremendum, made in
God’s image? As I talked with Paul Martin at his home in England, I realised he felt the same
hesitancy before a blank canvas that I felt before writing about him. This shared intimidation with
the task ahead gives me the courage to attempt to write something about this artist.
Not that Martin is at all intimidating. He is warm, gently spoken, and disarmingly youthful. Yet he is
tough; he needed to be tough to weather the iconoclasm of the art schools at which he studied. He
has also needed to be determined, industrious and single-minded in order to work in a demanding
full-time job for the past seventeen years, and at the same time produce an astonishing amount of
Although I have known Martin and his wife for a number of years, I welcomed the opportunity to
spend a Sunday afternoon in conversation with him about his work. We had just been at the liturgy
of the Greek Orthodox church to which we both belong, and so it was natural to ask him about the
relationship of his paintings to icons. His reply intimated the force beneath the flesh of his paintings
– ‘The possibility of depicting creation knowing God is dwelling in it: this is so incredible that it ought
to change the world. If the most holy person in the world could depict the most concentrated,
redeemed image, not only would sin be suspended but people would be moved to see the truth of
their human condition and perceive God. All the artist can do is strive for that ideal’.
God dwelling in material creation: this is Paul Martin’s vision. Therefore, although his work rarely
for use in a liturgical setting, it is always laden with presence. It is difficult to feel alone when
looking at his paintings. They meditate rather than originate; this is a quality that they share with
traditional icons. This mediatory aspect of Martin’s paintings is best understood in the light of the
Orthodox church’s teaching on the material world – a teaching he has intuited in his early days as
a painter. According to this teaching, the particular word or logos by which God creates each thing
continues to be within that thing, and gives it continued existence and directs it. This logos can be
called the subject’s spiritual essence or name. Part of each person’s return to the Logos Himself is
to perceive those words hidden within each created thing. It could be said, that at their best, Paul
Martin’s paintings hold a threshold position, partaking of both the paradisiacal realm of those
spiritual essences by which God creates, sustains and directs each thing, and the angst of a world
that has severed itself from this paradise. This tension is reminiscent of the patristic distinction
between the inalienable image of God in man, which can never be erased, and the more delicate
likeness of man to God, which can be developed or lost depending on each person’s of his or her
This spiritual quality has been present in Martin’s work from the beginning, in his earlier still-life
paintings and in the figurative works of the last decade. It is tempting to state the latter are
metaphorical and the former purely representational, but this would also be an oversimplification.
As the painter himself says, even the most mundane subjects of his early pictures can be
perceived as metaphors, taking us beyond what we actually see. Through the context in which he
depicts, for example, gloves in a drawer, water in a cup, or an embroidered tunic, he evokes
emotional or intellectual responses through the associations those things might have for us: the
gloves might becomes hands calling for help, the cup of water refreshment from a friend or angel,
the embroidered tunic an image of the wearer’s spiritual state. Such loose, almost poetic
symbolism is, at its best, both primitive and potent, initiating the viewer into a relationship with the
depicted object, person or event in much the same way an image works in a poem. The
experience which all Martin’s paintings give is therefore a combination of the spiritual and the
sensuous, both intellectually challenging and emotionally evocative.
Paul martin was born in 1948 in the south of England. He grew up in Rugby, a small Midlands
town, to which he eventually returned in 1979 to take up the post of art teacher at the town’s
famous public school, a post he still holds. His early artistic impetus came in part through a teacher
who, he says, “Was a complete eccentric. He went around hugging trees because he adored them.
He was just as passionate about the works of Giotto and Fra Angelico.” This introduction to the
works of great Christian artists led to an abiding love of their work, as well as a love for nature and
for literature. He grew up with an naïve belief in God, the beauty of God’s creation and the
Protestant work ethic, all nurtured in the Baptist church which he attended with his family.
These beliefs were challenged strenuously in the opening years of his university studies in fine art
and printmaking at Coventry School of Art and then at Birmingham College of Art. The major
tradition of art followed in most places at that time was nonfigurative abstraction. During his one
year at Coventry he was taught that “drawing was old fashioned, that respectable art was not
figurative, that beauty was a thing of the past, and that we should express ourselves
spontaneously and with originality all the time. That was the philosophy. The psychology was to
weed out the ‘weaker’ students with persistent negative criticism.” Birmingham was even more
militant in its teaching approach, and only the confident survived. After three years there, Martin
was not painting the abstract canvases which were fashionable and which would have reflected
what he regarded the modernist, nihilistic philosophy. His work was figurative. He argued a lot with
his tutors, though he also liked and respected them for their uncompromising views and their belief
in dedicated hard work. Looking back, he admits that all the controversy about what he wanted to
paint and the continuous challenging of his faith did him god. “You had to learn to defend your
stance intellectually,” he says.
It was the pressure to know what they believed and be able to defend it which led a number of
Christian art students at Birmingham to meet together for Bible studies and discussions. Through
them, Martin was introduced to the thinking of the Dutch art historian H.R. Rookmaaker. He is best
known in the Protestant milieu for his book Modern Art and the Death of a Culture. Fascinated by
his insights and his deep understanding of modern culture, the group invited him to travel to
Birmingham to give a lecture at the university.
Rookmaaker affirmed that it is not so much what one paints which makes it spiritual, but how one
paints it. His critique of secular modernism gave these young Christian artists the confidence to
produce what many of them had begun to produce already: paintings with a recognizable content
and some accessible spiritual meaning. Rookmaaker also introduced the students to the writings of
his contemporary, the Christian philosopher Francis Schaeffer. Martin recalls that ”both these men
drew our attention to the work of Dutch painters such as Rembrandt, Ruisdael and Vermeer as
exemplars of Christian art. These artists depicted ‘real people in a real world,’ as Schaeffer put it. I
was convinced. I wanted to do what they had done all those centuries before, but I wanted to do it
now, using the everyday objects and situation of the twentieth century.” The Dutch painters’ ability
to create a natural form of symbolism and their sheer ability to make paintings “delicious to the
eye” inspired Martin with new aims. Since then, he has always tried to blend and fuse familiar
subject matter with some form of metaphorical reference and a sensuous paint surface.
Martin’s final show at Birmingham contained an impressive amount of work, mainly studies of trees
and landscapes. In each one, he says, he tried to show the richness of the foliage, the light on the
leaves and grass, and the character of the tree and landscape itself. His paintings were large and
impressive, yet he knew he had much more to learn and was delighted when he won a
postgraduate scholarship to study at the Royal Academy of Art in London. The three years at the
academy were spent, as Martin puts it, “In learning to draw again.” This time was invaluable; he
drew everyday, concentrating upon the reality of objects and people, their essence and their power.
In his paintings he discovered more of the complexities of light, surface and shadow. For the most
part impressionistic landscapes and portraits were the result: none are shown here, but they are
mostly small, carefully executed, pale in tone, and full of soft light.
His painting The Press is a result of this time of endeavour and thought. In this painting we sense
the presence so characteristic of his work. In this case it is a disquieting presence, even ominous.
The darkly rendered book-press takes up the whole painting; it has two drawers, one of which is
open, displaying its contents to the viewer. It is full of different kinds of gloves: each pair is made
from a different material. There are rough woollen gloves, and soft leather gloves, which are worn
and marked. On the top of the press are some seashells and a pebble. The background is pale
and the whole painting is full of light. To me it seems that the press is crushing and suffocating the
gloves, which are trying to escape from the drawer. The objects have come to life in a sinister fable
and wage a human contest. Another interpretation of the painting could be that the gloves
represent human beings, drowning and suffocating, holding out their hands beseechingly for help.
Yet another reading could detect a cry for rescue and salvation from those in the grip of evil. The
response depends entirely on the viewer.
Despite the sense of darkness and threat, which the painting conveys, the artist is not expressing
anger or depicting an ugly scene. Martin feels compassion and hope, painting the subject with a
pleasing sense of all the differing materials, strengthened by juxtapositions. The natural seashells
contrast with the man made press; the pebble with the soft gloves; the light, almost white
background with the umber press; the opened drawer with the closed. One is reminded of one of
the artist’s favorite poems, George Herbert’s “Vertue,” and the lines:
Sweet spring, full of sweet dayes and roses,
A box where sweets compacted lie;
My musick shows you have your closes,
And all must die.
Such literature has been a constant source of inspiration for Martin. He says he has always loved
the metaphysical poets for their wonderfully dense imagery: “The way Donne or Herbert or
Vaughan focuses on one particular object and makes it mean so many things.” Their Christian
beliefs, as expressed in their poetry without dogmatism and with a sense of wonder, Martin also
tried to capture in his paintings from this time in the early seventies.
Another author who affected his development was the seventeenth-century theosophist Jakob
Böhme, who wrote The Aurora. Here, the author describes how, early one morning, he saw light
refracting through a tumbler of water and onto his tools (he was a shoemaker). From this came the
revelation that, as Martin paraphrases it, “God has taken up residence in matter, even the tools of
my trade.” This glimpse of matter’s numinous quality excited Martin. Without sharing Böhme’s
pantheism, he grew more convinced that his paintings could reflect this quality too, a sense of the
presence of divine light in all created things.
At this time Martin was involved in the Calvinist evangelical tradition, which tends to underestimate
the role of matter in spiritual life, yet he persisted in his intuition that matter could be sacramental.
When I asked him why he labours so much over his surfaces, he replied: “I want to show trousers
as trousers rather than as they look to the casual observer. I want to evoke their whole nature as
objects, their weight and texture, for example, as well as their colour.” Elsewhere in a program
made about him for Dutch television, he speaks of paint being “built up into an extremely sensuous
surface, a delicious surface, like ripe fruit.” One could say that he searches for the subject’s
essential quality, or as Gerard Manley Hopkins would have put it, the “instress” of each object or
thing. Martin speaks of the “mystery of the material.” Yet this mystery he doesn’t perceive in some
esoteric, pantheistic fashion, but as a consequence of the Incarnation of the Creator. The heart of
the mystery for him is that “God has taken up residence in creation, something which I can’t
understand but which I can accept and believe.”
“Do you believe,” I asked, “that the painter can be a co-worker with God in the sublimation of
matter, that through the act of painting and the painting itself he can in some way make more
evident this union of God with his creation?” He agreed that, “the actual act of painting can be
(though not automatically) an extension of Christ’s transfiguration of the material world, a sort of
priestly act.” However, lie all such acts, this one can be undertaken only “with great trepidation and
By the end of the mid-1970’s Martin was painting large scale canvases of inanimate objects:
beehives, massive hay-bales sizzling with yellow heat, mousetraps, huge rusted cisterns. There
was no human presence. There is no doubt that these paintings are powerful. Yet he realized that
he had gone as far as could with such subjects, however much character each seemed to
possess. He decided to incorporate figures.
At first he drew the figures from models. But these came out incased in a naturalism, which
suffocated that inner spirit he had so successfully evoked in the earlier work. Perhaps finding the
actual presence of the sitter too powerful, he stopped using models and began painting figures, as
he says, “either from memory or imagination or intuition.” The influence of artists like Fra Angelico
and Balthus inspired him to emphasise gesture rather than detail in these simplified human forms.
An important picture from this pivotal time was painted while Martin worked for a year as a teacher
in Australia. It is called Visitors. Two boys stand in a room bathed in yellow Australian light. One
holds a battered French horn, whilst the other is walking off to the left holding a cup. In the middle
is a sparse curtain, barley restraining the light, which beats in at the veiled dormer window.
The first impression this painting gives me is of an exquisite blend of abstract geometry (the
background), pervasive light, and the mystery of the human face, the human person. The geometry
suggests minimalism, but this and the impressionistic light are humanized by the distinctly
rendered figures. Three silhouetted moths seem to ease the metaphysical leaps from geometry to
light to persons: they hover within the rectangle of the curtain, supported by the liquid light, and yet
are still corporeal.
This is the initial aesthetic experience: warm, generous light. But we begin to notice the boy with
the horn more. The blue of his trousers stands out amidst the dominant golds and creams:
chiaroscuro throws his face into deeper relief than anything else in the painting. We begin to feel
curious about him. Why is he looking so perplexed? Why is he holding a battered horn, and how
did it get battered? And then there is the more enigmatic boy walking away. We don’t see his face,
and he is not as corporeal as the other; indeed, he seems to be crystallized light than flesh. Is he,
in fact, an angel? If so, has he just been talking to the boy, or perhaps given him a drink of water?
The boy with the horn begins to emerge as someone between two worlds, a celestial world and a
material one. Does his battered horn perhaps represent a failed opportunity to unite the two?
Although Martin declines to explain his paintings by answering such specific questions, he did
mention “the possibility of great beauty spoiled.”
In this painting we see something of how Martin engages not only the immediate aesthetic sense,
but also, by stages, the mind. By mystery he entices us to look, think, and peer behind this veil of
The visual furniture of this picture is minimal, which makes it easier for the artist to achieve unity.
But as he has progressed Martin has incorporated more objects into his paintings, and more
people. At the same time, the gestures have become more obviously metaphorical and less
prosaic. In real life we are unlikely to meet a boy dancing on a stool, a child trying to make plums
float by using a remote-control transmitter, or people twisting their heads upside down on their
shoulders. We are naturally led to ask what these strange things signify. It seems that the painter is
asking the viewer to search for clues that will decipher each painting’s meaning; in fact, he is
inviting his viewers not only to enjoy what they see but, to think at the same time about what his
pictures signify. He is provoking a response, rather than simply providing visual entertainment.
The question of whether Martin succeeds with these more populated and symbolic canvases
needs to be answered. I think that in most cases he does succeed, but as probably inevitable with
such ambitious aims and elusive subject matter, some pictures seem too ambiguous
metaphorically. With the others the balance of mystery and clarity is there but, to my mind, the
colours are perhaps too subdued and tonal. Yet aestheticism and symbolism are difficult horses to
harness and drive together, and when the painter does manage to do so he rides with supreme