Martin Harrison-Priestman was born in 1961 to a large working class family in Dulwich Hospital, South East London, England. The youngest of 8 children, it was clear from early on he had a precocious talent and a fertile imagination for all things creative. His surname Harrison-Priestman comes from a very Dickensian tale to say at the least, of an housemaid named Miss. Harrison seduced by the Lord of the Manor, a certain wealthy Mr. Priestman of Bridlington, Yorkshire. To avoid the gossip and the shame of the illegitimate pregnancy after the illicit affair with her aristocratic employer, she escaped from the grand house by travelling to London to find anonymity. Once Martin’s Father was born, she immediately paid a nanny to adopt him and went straight back into service in London and walked out of his life for good. This East Riding abandonment story would prove to be very important and play a central role in Martin’s life and decision making in the coming years.
Martin’s early primary school years were full of creativity, excitement, play and wonder. Gallery and museum visits, school plays and lots of imaginative exploration inspired by his talented and nurturing teachers, who were themselves part of the creative explosive energy of London in the swinging 60’s. It was on one of these school trips that a certain 8 year little boy was taken to the National Gallery in London that he first came into direct contact with fine art. He remembers particularly being drawn to Leonardo’s charcoal drawing of the cartoon, Durer’s drawings, Degas’s pastels and of course the oils of Van Gogh. It was a painting by Van Gogh of ‘A Wheatfield with Cypresses’ 1889 in the National that struck him like a thunderbolt and he rushed home and attempted to make a copy of what he had just seen and experienced. In those days working class children did not get pocket money and indeed England was still suffering financially from the effects of the 2nd world war. If children needed money they would return empty bottles of R. Whites lemonade to retrieve the deposit or scrounge the bomb sites for old bits of lead pipe to take to the rag and bone man. The only shop near to where he lived that sold oil paints was in fact a stationers and not an art suppliers. In a small corner of the shop one could find Windsor and Newton oil paints, mediums and brushes. He just had enough money to buy 4 tubes of paint, 2 brushes and a small jar of linseed oil. Once purchased he rushed back home to his Father’s workshop in the garden, highly charged with anticipation and expectation and started to paint on an old piece of hardboard the picture that had so excited him. Having only used school poster paints up until this time he remembers wrestling with the voluptuous nature of oil paint and being attractive to it’s rich musky aroma. No one forced or told him to do this painting, there was no school project or instruction from his teacher, he just had to paint it. This was the time when childhood poster paints were set aside and the real business of understanding painting began, his true vocation was born and embraced. Direct contact with the original painting somehow reached out to him, captured his passions and stimulated his imagination enough to begin his own painting journey. It was at this time that M. Harrison-Priestman fell passionately in love with painting and he has been faithful to his mistress ever since.
Unfortunately his secondary school years were not as happy, his dyslexia went undiagnosed resulting in a sense of isolation, frustration and confusion. As he found himself imprisoned creatively and emotionally for 7 years in a institution that was officially rated and categorized by the government as educationally disadvantaged and one of the top ten worst schools in the whole of Britain. Feeling like a fish out of water, these were troubled and unhappy years for the young adolescent artist. The only saving grace was when his art teacher John Taylor secretly sneaked him into Goldsmith’s Art college at the age of fourteen to participate in adult life-drawing classes. How he manged to survive this period in his life and then go on to art college, especially ending up at the Royal College is a miracle and reveals the strength of his character, resolve and convictions.
Martin studied fine art, life- drawing, printmaking and design at Goldsmiths University College, London College of Printing and The Royal College of Art between the years of 1976 – 1984. Having been taught and mentored by great teachers like Mike Pope, sculptor Neville Boden and the illustrious painter and educator Colin Hayes R.A at the R.C.A. These were the Punk years in London, where Martin came into contact with a wide variety of artists, designers, film-makers, animators, photographers and musicians. Influenced heavily by Dada and the Bauhaus, his early college work temporarily moved away from easel painting into collage, fine art printing and mixed media. While Neville Boden opened his eyes and introduced him to the beauty of perspex and resin sculpture. But it was Mike Pope’s and Colin Hayes inspirational Life-Drawing classes that brought him back to his first love, that of figurative painting. He had a troubled time in his later years at art college which reached a crescendo at the R.C.A as his work continued to move in a different direction. So much so, that his uncompromising, destructive and ruthless nature was revealed yet again. Against the advice of his lecturers in personally choosing to leave the prodigious Royal College and institutional confines once and for all; returning his scholarship, resulting in anonymity, financial struggle and isolation.
After graduating he continued to develop his work as a practicing artist and started to exhibit in London from the mid ’80s onwards, funded by part-time night work in a recording studio, named the ‘Townhouse’. Where he got the chance to hang out with the cream of the music world, like Eric Clapton, Sting, Queen, Freddie Mercury, Elton John, Prince, Van Morrison, Montserrat Caballé and many more. Painting furiously every day, followed nocturnally by heavy drinking sessions with friends’ in the seedy illegal clubs and cafés of London’s Soho. Sporting his obsessional daily uniform of bespoke orange trouser’s, electric blue velvet jacket and always donning a chapeau, he was a familiar face in all the haunt’s and dive’s at the time; like the Maltese Club, Madame Jojo’s, the Brain Club, Kinky Gerlinky, Tongue Kung Foo, and bars like the Dive Bar, DNA, Freud’s, the Milk Bar …………finishing up at Bar Italia at 5 in the morning for numerous espressos. This was a very frantic period in his life, most of his work at this time was destroyed by him at the end of the working day or given to friends; little survived. Painting wildly with unbridled energy and without clarity and articulation, his creative frustration and sense of urgency increased as he could not find a way to harness this passion and produce a satisfactory visual statement.
He gradually started to exhibit in many group exhibitions around London and in 1986 exhibited an ‘Adam and Eve’ painting in the South London Galleries summer show for local artists. Then in 1989 he was invited by The Evening Standard’s late infamous art critic Brian Sewell to organize and hang a small paintings show called ‘The Christmas Market’ with portrait artist Michael Reynolds. Which was the forerunner of the now established ‘Discerning Eye’ exhibition. It was a great success and he was again selected in 1990 by Brian Sewell to be included in his selection of up and coming promising young artists to watch out for in the very first ever ‘Discerning Eye’ show. The following few years were spent painting in Berlin and Tokyo via an overseas sponsorship award. Then just when his career started to finally blossom, tragedy hit when his Father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and he became his parents’ full-time carer for the next 15 years. Dionysian by nature, Martin battled internally with his demon’s, as to accept the role of his Father’s carer would mean transforming his character into an Apollonian one; which was completely alien to him. The battle between the two would eventually tear him apart. Given his Father’s early abandonment, Martin was determined that history would not be repeated by his Father ending his life abandoned again, alone and deserted in a nursing home. He succeeded in this aim, changed the cycle of events and was there right up until the end; but at great emotional, mental and physical cost to himself.
During this demanding and immensely difficult time he withdrew from the Art scene, stopped exhibiting altogether and began a phase which he refers to as his ‘wilderness years drowning in black-quicksand’. Most of the work executed during these difficult years did not survive and was either ruthlessly cut up out of frustration or much later painted over. When his caring role ended with the passing of both parents’, he found himself in a psychological, emotional, professional and practical vacuum; resulting in a state of despair and complete exhaustion. Left with no resources and no one to turn too, most people would had given up and thrown the towel in, but not him. Starting with simple tasks, followed by the therapeutic nature of gardening he rebuilt his psychological, emotional and physical stability on his own. After several years of personal, philosophical exploration and rehabilitation, he gradually started to venture out from this period of isolated uncertainty and embraced the world again. It was during this transition period that he met by chance in a London cafe his now wife Gül, whom he describes as someone who brought him back to life and aided his artistic resurrection. Not wanting to leave his hometown London, more trouble lay ahead when he was forced to become an exile from his own country due to regulations in the British immigration rules and laws on marriage.
So in 2010 he found himself in Istanbul with his muse and started painting again in a new Town. After brushing away the years of pain and despair, he was soon back in the saddle and was invited to participate in the Beşiktaş Painting Festival in 2014 in Istanbul. Another opportunity came along in 2014 as well, when he started to teach part-time painting classes at Özyeğin University. Followed by an invitation in 2015 to give monthly painting workshops at the launch of Soho House Istanbul. That same year and again in 2017 he was also shortlisted for the prestigious B.P Portrait Award at the National Portrait Gallery in London. His work will be part of the 2018 London Frieze event in the show aptly named considering his exile, ‘Drawn to London’ at the Project Space Gallery. Now firmly back at the easel, he is currently working towards a one-man show.
Known by a select group of close friends’ as ‘The Baboon’, due to his colourful and fiery nature. Martin and I have been friend’s now for a number of years and his resilience and personal ruthlessness with himself constantly surprises me. Uncompromising in his singular vision and in all departments of his life, he is firmly set on his path regardless of the consequences or obstacles that have confronted him; his struggle is truly monumental. He seems to possess a self-generating energy that is hard to extinguish; the best way to describe him is as someone who is driven, in other words a force of nature; passion in it’s truest sense.
Written by an old friend – 2018