This week’s Profile post features our 2013 film on letter carver Martin Wenham, shot in anticipation of Wenham’s exhibition later that year. Read on below for a more detailed biography of Wenham’s life and to see more of his beautiful work:
detail from ‘Stand Still’
Born in 1941, Martin Wenham’s early interest in lettering was stimulated by playing with the coloured inks and Mitchell poster-pens which his father used to hand-letter Dig for Victory posters after the end of the war. Art teaching in his primary school was highly innovative: being told about Paul Klee and lines taking dots for a walk became a particularly vivid memory.
After such an introduction, his grammar school was a severe let-down: the academically-able were timetabled away from art after the first year, so he gravitated to biology which, as he says, involved at least as much drawing and is all about colours, shapes and pattern anyway. Fellow-pupils were the sons of the author and illustrator C. Walter Hodges who was a powerful influence, taking the young Wenham to galleries, pointing out the different kinds of meaning which lie behind superficial appearances and starting a fascination with modern art which has been lifelong.
detail from ‘Mensaje de la Playa’
At university, Wenham read botany and forestry, which involved him in long sessions of precise observational drawing of whole plants, their parts, and their microscopic anatomy. After a year of field-work and mapping out mountain vegetation (shapes, patterns and subtle colour-differences on a 3-D surface), he carried out three years of research in Aberdeen for his doctorate on the anatomy of wood growth: a topic centred on the development of very beautiful and complex three-dimensional forms.
‘Wood and the Trees’, with detail
All this time a mild interest in pen-lettering had persisted and during the following year, in the middle of a dead-end research fellowship, a colleague asked him to carve a house-name in wood because you know about lettering. Harry Spring, a professional carver who had been made redundant, was working at the same research station and showed Wenham the basic technique of letter-cutting, as well as selling him a basic kit of tools, some of which are still in use 35 years later, for 2/6d each.
After a year of frustration Wenham left full-time research and became a teacher, spending the next twenty-three years in secondary, primary and special schools. His career in education ended with a nine-year spell as a lecturer in primary education at the University of Leicester, specializing in science and art. During his years of teaching he was developing his own techniques of letter-cutting, moving away from the idea of wood as simply a raw material and towards the use of each piece as a unique object which can play a significant and positive role in design and the communication of meaning.
(above) Wenham carving the lettering to ‘The Tenth Beatitude’ (below left); (below right) ‘The Gift of You’
He began exhibiting his work in 1982, and since 1984 it has been shown in most of the major exhibitions of lettering arts in Britain. During that time he returned to his love of colour and began using a wider range of media: watercolour, acrylic, slate and engraved glass in addition to wood.
His publications include numerous papers for specialist journals on education and lettering. His work has featured in an instructional book on wood carving and in four books on contemporary lettering, and he is engaged from time to time in writing his own workshop manual. Wenham also teaches short courses at West Dean College and the City and Guilds of London Art School.
In recent years he has found a second (or is it third?) career in writing books for primary school teachers. His Understanding Primary Science and 200 Science Activities for Young Students was published by Paul Chapman, and he has been writing a book on art basics for the same publisher.
Martin Wenham’s work is represented in the Crafts Council’s Permanent Collection and in private collections in the USA, Germany, Japan and Puerto Rico as well as in Britain. He has carried out major commissions at Uppingham School (1984), the Yorkshire Sculpture Park (1990s), St. Oswald’s Church, Durham (1994) and the Leicester Royal Infirmary (1997-99). His first solo exhibition took place here in 2001; Goldmark Gallery is delighted to continue selling his extraordinary work.