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Paul Sharp: Artist First and Designer Second

Paul Sharp: Artist First and Designer Second


By Olivia Nicholls MA (Cantab), MSc Art History (Edin)
At Sulis Fine Art

 

Paul Sharp’s artistic training started early, and indeed his was a life lived breathing his art. Born in 1921, in Sowerby Bridge, West Yorkshire, he attended Queen Elizabeth Grammar School, soon followed by Wakefield School of Arts and Crafts in 1937, and Leeds College of Art in 1940-1. The Second World War interrupted his artistic calling, Sharp being called up to serve in the RAF. From 1941 to 1946 he was appointed as a radar technician, serving in Scotland, Lincolnshire and Surrey. This period is not perhaps without relevance to his art, however: Sharp would go on to document and illustrate machinery, laboratories, workshops – technical subjects which perhaps drew on his personal experience as a technician. He even painted a radar itself, in 1963, his stark but aggrandised depiction of the radar paying tribute to the technical heroism of such a structure.

 

Paul Sharp 

 

Following his demobilisation Sharp resumed his artistic training, studying at the Royal College of Art, from May 1946 to 1949, and obtaining an ARCA Diploma. He then began teaching at Farnham College of Art, where he ultimately became Head of the Department of Design. Sharp’s talent, evident throughout the body of work we have acquired, suggests that he would have made an excellent teacher. It is in formal ability that Sharp excels – his remarkable sense of proportion and perspective – a talent which, in turn, leant itself to the instruction of others. During his time teaching he developed a reputation as a gifted watercolour illustrator, artist and printmaker.

 

In 1960, however, Sharp left teaching and became a full-time graphic designer. He was introduced to Westerham Press, known for high quality illustrated books and exhibition catalogues, by leading British typographic designer Ruari McLean. Encouraged by the Press’s founder, Rowley Atterbury, he soon became their artist in situ working on a great variety of projects. His reputation grew and he was to work for clients as diverse as the Paul Mellon Foundation, The National Gallery, Sotheby’s, Royal Doulton, The Mermaid Theatre, The Science Museum –all marked by his well ordered graphic style.

 

A major commission for Sharp was the creation of a series of guide books for National Benzole Petroleum. He produced dozens of pen and ink illustrations for these publications, which included titles on Bridges, Follies, Museums and Sailing. These small-scale observational drawings exemplify Sharps’s formal sense of proportion and careful use of white space, which are critical aspects of elegant and effective book design. He was able, for example, to distill the complexity of the Tyne Bridge in Newcastle onto the page, whilst retaining a sense of its grandeur. 

 

Paul Sharp 


As a designer he worked frequently with photographers, but his most distinctive work was always that which drew upon his ability to quickly capture in a few lines the essence of a building, structure or industrial scene. It is said that he could draw through a car window, or under an umbrella in a howling gale. Remarkably, for Nicholson’s Guide to the Thames, he drew all of London’s bridges in one day.

 

Sharp excelled at depicting scenes of industry, construction and mechanization. In highly detailed yet apparently effortless drawings he rendered complex structures and perspectives. He drew a number of dockyard scenes with views of shipbuilding, cranes, decks, funnels, yards and machinery – all documenting an industry that was instrumental in the making of modern Britain. Sharp’s observational illustrations record the industry in a relatively objective way. But, nevertheless, the vast number of pictures he did on the subject, along with a sympathetic portrayal of the industrious workforce, glorify industry and are indicative of a mid-century optimism regarding national recovery and technological advancement.   

 

Paul Sharp

 

Paul Sharp 

 

Paul Sharp


In a departure from his depictions of engineering and industry, Sharp’s colour illustrations for the National Benzole titles demonstrate his skill in working with gouache and watercolour. His colour illustrations show a designer’s eye, the colours having a graphic simplicity and considered placement. His colour works have been described as being in the manner of John Piper. The English painter, graphic artist, designer and writer John Piper had a long and diverse career but is particularly noted for his paintings of architectural views, especially of churches and stately homes. Sharp’s illustrations for the National Benzole publication on Follies in particular relate to themes of architectural ruin common in Piper’s work. Although Sharp’s images are significantly more naturalistic, their composition and colour remind of Piper’s work: 

 

John Piper Blenheim Gates 1983


Paul Sharp 

 

Romantic Moderns book cover by John Piper (Book by Alexandra Harris)

 

Paul Sharp

 

It is images like this which cross over into Sharp’s landscape painting style, which differs somewhat from his observational pen and ink technique. His landscapes nevertheless show a designer’s use of colour and a formalist approach to composition, with sweeping plains of patterned brushstrokes and dabs of cloud and vegetation to give structure. 

 Paul Sharp

 

 Paul Sharp

 

But his landscapes involve a romanticism which is barely evident in his documentary drawings. Like Piper, his landscapes could fall into a style which Alexandra Harris has defined as ‘romantic modernism’. Whereas high modernism wanted to lay waste to the material past in order to re-fashion it, romantic moderns had an affection for what had gone before, and their sensibility was intensely local. Standing stones, country churches, walls, tree roots, were all to be celebrated; specific local views of the English countryside featured heavily in their art. Consider Sharp’s landscapes:

 Paul Sharp 

 

Paul Sharp

 

Sharp’s romantic modernism combined most satisfyingly in two unusual large-scale paintings, of the building of the M1. Capturing a feat of modern engineering in progress, the paintings are absolutely of their time. They document a scene which superficially could be considered mundane and esoteric, but Sharp’s artistic treatment of it reminds us that it was a pivotal moment in the development of British infrastructure. These paintings are at once brilliantly observed and formally outstanding, with the romantic imagination of a man who was artist first and designer second.  

 

Paul Sharp

 

Paul Sharp



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