Martin Sharp

Martin Sharp, with a little help from his friends

Yellow House photo

Martin Sharp posed with a group of friends for a newspaper photo on the eve of a landmark Yellow House exhibition opening in Sydney on April Fool’s Day 1971.

At the time, those gathered around him were described only as Sharp’s friends. When I used the image in my biography, I could identify only the extraordinary David Litvinoff, muscle-bound and bare-chested, standing on the ladder above Martin.

Now Martin’s cousin Andrew Sharp, a Yellow House habitué, has filled in most of the blanks. Pictured from left are: Colette St John, Martin Sharp, David Litvinoff, Dick Weight & Victoria Cobden. The young woman on the right remains a mystery.

The Australian’s article related how the Yellow House, in Macleay Street, had been inspired by Van Gogh’s failed attempt to establish a community of artists in the south of France.

‘It didn’t work, but it might now,’ Martin said. 

The photo was taken ahead of the opening of The Incredible Shrinking Exhibition in which Martin shrank a collection of his collages and other works to a fraction of their original size.

Martin met David Litvinoff in London. He was a raconteur and an East End rogue who moved between London’s art, pop and criminal worlds. Keith Richards described Litvinoff as: ‘On the borders of art and villainy.’ Litvinoff fuelled the myth that he was the inspiration for The Rolling Stones’ Jumpin’ Jack Flash.

Colette St John’s lawyer father, Edward St John, appeared in the Sydney Oz magazine obscenity appeal in the mid-sixties in which Martin and others had their jail sentences overturned.

Dick Weight was among the artists who transformed the rooms of the Yellow House into enchanting spaces. His brother Greg Weight photographed the interiors.

Victoria Cobden appeared in the original Sydney production of the musical Hair, directed by Jim Sharman.

The opening kicked off with a tap dance by Little Nell – who later shot to screen stardom as Columbia in The Rocky Horror Show.

After 40 years, it’s good to remember some of the friends who made the extraordinary exhibition happen.

Elizabeth von Arnim

Hello, book clubs

Elizabeth von Arnim crossed paths – and sometimes swords – with the leading artists, writers and thinkers of her era.

E.M. Forster tutored her children, and never forgave her for tormenting him as a young man.

She had a tempestuous relationship with writer H.G. Wells, who later wrote a kiss-and-tell account of their affair.

Elizabeth visited Bertrand Russell when he was imprisoned for pacifism during World War I, sometimes with society hostess Lady Ottoline Morrell. Elizabeth remained friends with Bertrand Russell long after her disastrous marriage to his brother ended.

Virginia Woolf admired Elizabeth’s writing, some of which she considered as good as Dickens.

Elizabeth became close to her New Zealand-born cousin Katherine Mansfield when they lived in Switzerland in the 1920s. Yet theirs was a prickly friendship.

Elizabeth’s final novel, Mr Skeffington, became a Hollywood movie. Bette Davis was nominated for an Oscar for her role as the aging beauty Fanny Skeffington.

If you would like to hear more about Elizabeth’s remarkable literary life, biographer Joyce Morgan, author of The Countess from Kirribilli, would be happy to speak to your book group.

Contact her here

Elizabeth von Arnim

Writer’s corner

My work habits have featured in the weekly books newsletter of The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.

Each week we ask an author about their writing rituals. This week: Joyce Morgan, author of The Countess from Kirribilli

If I’m at my desk by the crack of 10am, I’m happy. I have never been an early riser. What I grandly call my study is the spare bedroom, which I share with my bicycle. I follow a similar working day writing non-fiction as I did as a daily journalist. I love a deadline. So, I set myself a word count each day.

I write in silence and edit to music. But only to instrumental or orchestral music, otherwise I’m distracted by the lyrics. I am also inclined to procrastinate.

I’ve written my latest book amid pandemic lockdowns that I’ve barely noticed. Every day feels like a self-isolation day when I’m writing a book. On a good day, I lose track of time. But my Border Collie never does. Lochy pushes his wet nose around my study door on the dot of 5.30pm.