Saturday, 5 April 2014

Martin Sharp's poster 1967

"This poster was for a Legalise Cannabis rally. The varied characters were from a  pre-photographic edition of National Geographic with engravings." (Martin Sharp in Hathaway and Nadel, 2002).

Martin Sharp, Legalise Cannabis. The putting together of the heads. 2 pm on Sunday July 16 at Speakers Corner, Hyde Park. Stone Free. Strawberry Fields. Inscribed on lower left margin: BO1 Cannabis by Martin Sharp. Published by Big O Posters Ltd., 219 Eversleigh Rd, London, SW11 5UY, 01228 3392. Printed in England. Offset lithograph poster, printed in red, orange and black on gold foil backed with card, 20 x 30 inches.

Martin Sharp, London, 1969. David Beal
Early in 1967 Australian artist Martin Sharp and compatriot Richard Neville began publication of the London edition of OZ magazine, with the talented Sharp managing its significant graphical content. The pair had worked together in Sydney between 1963 and February 1966 on the Australian edition of OZ, before heading off on a journey to England via South East Asia and the so-called Hippie Trail. They both continued to supply material to the Australian OZ through to its last issue in 1969, dispatching it sporadically from various places en route, or from their London base. The British version of the magazine - unbeknownst to the editors at the time of their arrival in London around July 1966 - appeared at the end of January 1967 and was to prove more colourful, international and controversial than its antipodean counterpart. From the outset it extended the boundaries of magazine content and layout, featuring, for example, rainbow printing and posters in various forms - as inserts (stapled or loose), foldout covers, or completely separate for posting on billboards to promote the magazine or OZ-related events.

Whilst in Australia Sharp had designed posters in association with Sydney OZ, the most notable of these being the Dick Tracey-themed OZ - Guide to the Underworld (1964) and God bless dear Daddy who is fighting the Viet Cong and send him OZ (1966). During the first half of 1967 Sharp worked with Peter Ledeboer in printing posters. At the time Ledeboer was responsible for organising subscriptions and the printing of London OZ. However due to the initial success of the OZ-related posters Legalise Cannabis and OZ Number Four issued in June-July 1967, by September of that year Ledeboer had decided to focus on the production of posters and set up the Big O Posters company (Bigham, 2001). In the first 12 months of his collaboration with Martin Sharp the pair were responsible for three of the most iconic posters to come out of Great Britain during the 1960s - the Bob Dylan Mr Tambourine Man / Blowing in the Mind, the Donovan Sunshine Superman and the Jimi Hendrix poster - along with a host of other art, music and event-related posters. As Sharp noted later:

In London, I had a wonderful printer, Peter Ledeboer, who was printing OZ. He loved the idea of doing posters; he was a great publisher for me. And I really loved the effect of foil, so we printed on foil stock. I admired the San Francisco poster artists, Mouse, Moscoso, Rick Griffin.... (Martin Sharp in Hathaway and Nadel, 2002).


The themes of sex, drugs and music were strongly evident in Martin Sharp's posters produced during the second half of 1967 and on through 1968 and 1969. They were, in fact, a reflection of the hedonistic lifestyle he was living at that time. For example, one of his earliest posters for Big O was simply titled SEX! and featured a bare-breasted native woman being carried off by a man dressed in a gorilla suit. Apart from such cartoonish and pop-cultural elements, Sharp brought a profound and ever increasing knowledge of art history to his work with Big O, along with a special interest in early twentieth century collage and the work of the German Surrealist Max Ernst. This art historical perspective was used by Sharp, alongside contemporary influences such as Pop Art and drug-inspired psychedelia, to produce a truly unique pictorial style which proved popular with the youth of the day. The first event poster Sharp and Ledeboer printed had nothing to do with music or sex, but more to do with the burgeoning drug subculture. Cannabis - or marijuana - was to be its subject.

The poster Legalise Cannabis - The Putting Together of the Heads was produced to promote a rally held in Hyde Park, London, on 16 July 1967. This was England’s Summer of Love and the rally sought legalisation of cannabis and decriminalisation of its use. The poster artwork featured an upper section of swirling psychedelic fonts and circular lines in reddish-orange inks promoting the details of the rally, whilst the middle and lower section was populated with a densely packed collage of ethnographic heads extracted, according to Sharp's later testimony, from a pre-photographic edition of National Geographic. The use of heads was most likely a pun by Sharp on the term 'heads' as it applied to that part of the marijuana plant which was the most chemically potent and hallucinogenic. 'Heads' also referred to smokers and users of the drug. Furthermore, a Head Shop was a store where drug paraphernalia, clothes, posters and related material could be purchased.

Just prior to, or around the same time as, the production of Legalise Cannabis, Sharp used an ethnographic head in OZ magazine number 4, which hit the streets in June 1967. The front cover was a foldout poster by Michael English and Nigel Waymouth of Hapshash and the Coloured Coat. It featured a couple in a tantric embrace, whilst on the rear was a series of 22 tarot cards designed by Sharp and coloured in pink, yellow, gold and black similar to the front poster. One of those images - titled The Pope - featured a native head with fangs attached, coloured eyes and tattooed lines on the face.

 Martin Sharp, The Pope Tarot Card, OZ magazine, number 4, June 1967, rear of front cover.

A different native head was featured in a poster promoting that issue of the magazine. It was a two colour silkscreen print in black and red/orange on white paper. The head appears to be that of a South American or Tierra del Feugan, though it has also been cited as Maori.

Martin Sharp, OZ - Number Four - two and six, OZ Magazine, London, June 1967.

A variant of this promotional poster is also known, identical apart from the use of red/orange, gold and blue for the printing on white paper (or possibly red/orange and blue on gold paper). The text in both posters refers to items within OZ magazine number 4. The poster has been labelled Sgt. Nassers Lonely Heartbreak Band in one instance, though it is also known as OZ number four.

 Martin Sharp, OZ - number four - two and six [variant], OZ Magazine, London, June 1967.

A third, less ornate variant was subsequently produced and offered for sale during 1968 by Big O Posters. It was printed in pink and purple fluorescent ink with all the text relating to OZ magazine number 4 removed. 

Martin Sharp, OZ - Join the Lost Generation, Big O Posters, London, 1968.

The OZ logo was also placed behind the head, as opposed to in front. This poster bore the inscription Join the Lost Generation, though the reason for this is not known. It is unclear whether Sharp had a role in the production of this Big O poster, or whether it was an initiative of Ledeboer. The poster was subsequently listed as OZ head in Big O advertisements through to the 1971 catalogue. The ethnographic head featured in these two posters is just one of the many included in the Legalise Cannabis poster of July 1967. The cover of OZ magazine number 6, from August 1967, also featured some of the ethnographic figures that appeared in the central section of the Legalise Cannabis poster. It is difficult to know precisely the order of production of these posters and the magazine cover, as they all appear to have been produced during June-July 1967.

Martin Sharp, OZ & Other Scenes [magazine cover], London, number 6, August 1967.

The stolen poster

To do posters for people or causes I admire - I love doing that. I enjoyed seeing my posters up in the street. My test was: Can you read it or recognise the image from across the street? I try to keep my images simple and bright. If so, a successful poster. (Martin Sharp in Hathaway and Nadel, 2002).

For the Legalise Cannabis poster the deadline was 16 July 1967, the day of the rally. According to Ledeboer, he and Sharp organised an initial print run of 600 to be posted around London in the weeks prior, as was the usual practise (Suckling 2014). However when Sharp noticed that with only a week or two to go the posters were nowhere to be seen, it seemed obvious that something was amiss. He and Ledeboer soon discovered that the contracted distributor had packed the initial print run up and sent it off to the United States to be sold by a poster distribution company there. They had been ripped off, so immediately set about printing their own run of Legalise Cannabis on the foil stock available to them. They arranged for a reprint on higher quality paper at a factory which stocked a light grade board lined on one side with metallic foil. Ledeboer has recalled that 'this incident alerted him to the potential market for posters' and ultimately led to the setting up of Big O Posters (Gunn, 2010).

It is unknown whether the first, stolen print run was on gold foil-faced card, though it is likely. The poster would not have included reference to Big O, with the only inscription the artist's signature 'Sharp 67' on the right middle section of the design. Copies of the Legalise Cannabis poster with no printer information on the bottom margin are known, though whether these are from the first, stolen print run, a later pre-Big O Posters print run, or a bootleg printing is uncertain. It seems that the early Big O foil posters were printed with the foil laid down on a heavy cream coloured card, and that later printings were on a thicker foil without a card base. Furthermore, some of the presumed first printing, uninscribed posters make use of three inks - red, orange and black - with the orange appearing on the upper right half of the poster to give the text a somewhat blurred appearance.

Section of Legalise Cannabis poster showing red and orange ink on gold paper.

This offsetting of the print was obviously intentional and possibly identifies the initial printing by Sharp and Ledeboer, as all other printings only make use of reddish-orange and black ink. During 1966-7 San Francisco poster artist Victor Moscoso applied his knowledge of colour theory and began experimenting with the use of opposing colours in music and event posters to replicate the effects of the psychedelic drug experience, or rock concert light shows. Sharp may have been attempting to replicate this effect with the initial run of Legalise Cannabis. The aim was to make the poster pulsate and shimmer, thereby drawing the attention of passers by. The use of inks which shone under ultraviolet (black) light was also a technique applied in the production of psychedelic and other pop culture posters during the sixties and seventies, though it was used only occasionally by Sharp.

Pre-Big O

The earliest advertisement to feature the Legalise Cannabis poster was within the 18 August 1967 edition of the Danish music magazine Hitweek. Therein it is one of a number of British and European psychedelic posters offered for sale by Sturm and Getsy and featured in a 2-page spread.
The poster is offered for sale for 4 fennings and is titled 'The Putting Together of the Heads.' Posters by Hapshash & the Coloured Coat also feature.

Big O Poster BO1

To fathom Hell or soar angelic
Just takes a pinch of psychedelic
Humphry Osmond 1957

The Sharp and Ledeboer production of the Legalise Cannabis poster - designated BO1 within the first Big O Posters advertisement in the February 1968 edition of OZ magazine - was a stunning work, with bright reddish-orange ink headlining and swirling above and within the incredibly detailed collection of ethnographic heads in contrasting black, all sitting on gleaming gold foil. It was a standard double crown in size (50.8 x 76 cm / 20 x 30 inches) and presented in portrait format. The printing process was two colour offset lithography, with the black laid down first, followed by the red / orange inks. The text of the poster read across the top section:

Legalise Cannabis. The putting together of the heads. 2 pm on Sunday July 16 at Speakers Corner, Hyde Park. Stone Free. Strawberry Fields.

Subsequent reprints included in the lower margin at bottom left, and outside of the artwork, the following inscription:

BO1 Cannabis by Martin Sharp. Published by Big O Posters Ltd., 219 Eversleigh Rd, London, SW11 5UY, 01228 3392. Printed in England. 

The original OZ magazine Big O advertisement of February 1968 incorrectly listed it as ‘BO7 Cannabis' with 5/- as the sale price, though a later advertisement (June 1968) listed it as ‘BO1 Cannabis 9/6d' and it maintained this designation through to the final OZ advertisements in 1973. Sharp's extremely popular Bob Dylan Blowing in the Mind poster had been allocated the BOP1 label, having been designed by him earlier but most likely printed later than Legalise Cannabis.

Big O Posters [advertisement], OZ magazine, number 9, February 1968.

Ledeboer later noted that the Sharp posters on foil, and others, were initially sold for less than the cost of printing, thus the increase in price from 5/- to 9/6d to cover costs of reprints and allow the firm to sell them for £1 in shops and stalls. Between 1967 and 1971 Sharp produced 20 posters which were subsequently sold by Big O. They include the following, with the approximate date of the initial printing noted where known:

BO1 - Legalise Cannabis - June-July 1967
BOP1 - Bob Dylan / Blowing in the Mind - July-August 1967
BO2 - SEX! - September 1967
BOP6 - Max Ernst - October 1967
BOP7 - Donovan / Sunshine Superman - November 1967
BO4 - Live Give Love - December 1967
BOP8 - Vincent -January 1968
[ ] - Cream - 1968
[ ] - Jimi Hendrix (right-handed) - 1968
MS16 - Jimi Hendrix (left-handed) - 1968
MS1 - Float (set of eight S'Martiples on mylar) - 1969
MS2 - Boo-Zoom -1969
MS3 - Coming - 1969
MS4 - Standing Alone - 1969
MS5 - All You Need 1969
MS6 - Wot - 1969
MS7 - Exclamation - 1969
MS8 - The Flying Eye - 1969
MS10 - Micky n' Vince - 1969
Curtain Call 1969
[ ] - Man on the Moon / Spurt - July 1969

The 2014 release of The Art of Big O did not provide any assistance in regard to a precise listing of Sharp's posters. The majority were printed on plain paper or metallic foil faced card, of standard 20 x 30 inch size, though the Jimi Hendrix posters were large, as were the S'Martiples of 1969, at approximately 30 x 40 inches. The latter were also silkscreen printed on mylar, as was a copy of the first, right-handed Jimi Hendrix in 1971. Many of Sharp's Big O posters were reprinted, with Bigham (2001) noting that some 100,000 copies of Blowing in the Mind were sold between 1967-70 and it was the subject of at least 40 reprints. Advertisements continued to appear in OZ right through to its final editions in 1973, where the Sharp posters mostly sold for 70p. The Legalise Cannabis poster was likewise reprinted, with references known to three such printings, though these are at present difficult to differentiate. It is assumed that all the official printings bore the Big O Posters inscription on the bottom left of the poster, apart from the initial, pre-September 1967 print runs.

The rally and posters

A second poster for the Legalise Pot Rally in 1967 was produced by UK artist Michael McInnerney, as part of the Osiris series. It also appeared for sale in the August 1967 Hitweek advertisement. Both it and Sharp's Legalise Cannabis were used on the day of the rally.

Michael McInnerney, Legalise Pot Rally, 1967, poster, Osiris Agency, London.

It is interesting to reflect upon the different psychedelic styles evident in these two posters. Both make use of the swirling, sensuously rounded fonts and bright dayglo colours so common for the period. Beyond that McInnerney's is similar to the Hapshash and the Coloured Coat style, which was strongly influenced by the nineteenth century artist Aubrey Beardsley and a reflection of the oil-based light shows gaining popularity at the time. They feature phantasmagorical narrative elements which the English so admired in their literature, music and art, going back to the Pre-Raphaelites of the 1860s. These elements were largely missing from the Australian Martin Sharp's work, though he did come under the sway of the British tradition and more recent pop cultural influences such as J.R.R. Tolkien and his Lord of the Rings series, like so many other young people during this period.

According to the editor of OZ Richard Neville, the Hyde Park rally was a turning point for the magazine in regards to reputation and sales. Copies were distributed to the large crowd and from that point on it was accepted as the standard-bearer of the London counter-culture, alongside International Times. Sharp''s poster no doubt added to the success of the rally. According to a report in the Times of London, some "5,000 hippies" attended and heard talks by the likes of American Beat poet Allen Ginsberg and rally organiser Steve Abrams.

Allen Ginsberg and Steve Abrams at Legalise Pot rally, 16 July 1967 [video] 2.36 mins.

Legalise Marijuana rally in Hyde Park, 16 July 1967 [archival video] 0.36 mins

Sharp's Legalise Cannabis with its substantial collage elements remains both a homage to Surrealist artist Max Ernst and a record of the important role drugs such as cannabis played in the cultural revolutions of western society during the 1960s. Artists such as Sharp made use of mind-expanding drugs including cannabis and LSD in the process of developing their art at this time. Sharp's most significant output for Big O Posters occurred during a brief period in 1967 and early 1968 and is seen by many as a significant contribution to what has become known as Psychedelic Art. The fact that much of this art was for street billboards and rock venues - as opposed to gallery art - has meant that it remains a little studied or understood area of western art history, despite its significance and popularity. Posters such as Legalise Cannabis graced the walls of thousands of bedrooms throughout the UK, US, Europe and Australasia during the sixties and seventies, connecting with the youth of the time and their belief in the need for peaceful revolution. Counter culture magazines such as OZ and International Times were extremely popular, selling in the tens of thousands with little or no publicity. Unfortunately both the Big O posters and the aforesaid magazines were largely ephemeral and as a result were omitted from the standard books on the art of the Sixties, though a number of specialist books and exhibition catalogues on this subject have recently started to fill the gap.

The 1968 Rally

On 7 July 1968 another rally was held in Hyde Park as a followup to the previous year's Legalise Cannabis event. A special black light poster was produced by OZ magazine to promote the rally. The poster featured the art of both Martin Sharp and John Hurford. It was based upon an original drawing by Sharp, a black and white copy of which is reproduced in Underground Graphics (1970). This book includes a number of reproductions of Sharp's art from OZ and other sources.

 Martin Sharp, Show Your Head, ink drawing. Reproduced in Underground Graphics, 1970. Originally published in OZ.

In the background of the poster in pale lilac (only visible under ultraviolet light) is the head of a bearded sage by John Hurford, whilst the foreground features Sharp's complex, psychedelic line drawing in white of the somewhat wild-eyed Tolkienish Treebeard-like figure smoking a reefer and with flowers protruding from his head and nose. 

Martin Sharp and John Hurford, Show Your Head, Legalise Pot 1968 Rally, OZ, printed by The Word, 1968.

This was undoubtedly inspired by J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy which was popular amongst young people at the time, and perhaps by the line "Be sure to wear some flowers in your hair" from that classic 1967 Summer of Love song San Francisco written by John Phillips of The Mamas and The Papas.

The poster image and Treebeard-like head also appeared on the secondary cover of OZ magazine number 13, June 1968, with some slight modifications by Sharp, including the insertion of a flying saucer and the words OZ overprinted with the number 13 on the lower right section, along with the magazine contents and OZ logo over the top half in deep blue.

Martin Sharp and John Hurford, OZ magazine, number 13, London, June 1968 [secondary cover].

According to Hurford (pers. comm 2014): "The [sage] head is from a poster I printed in black and white on an architect blueprint machine. I only printed a couple .... It also had a quote on it from a Mamas and Papas song. Martin used this poster as a basis for the "Head" poster and secondary OZ cover." A further description of the poster is contained in the recent publication Johnny: The world of psychedelic artist John Hurford (Sunrise Press, 2014).

The art of Martin Sharp saw dramatic transformation following his arrival in London in 1966, brought about in part by consumption of psychotropic drugs such as cannabis and LSD. The Legalise Cannabis and Show Your Head posters are clear evidence of this. His usage appears mainly to have been in a social context, and abated during the 1970s with the realisation that drugs were not needed in the pursuit of his unique artistic visions. They served their purpose for a period, and he moved on, though he continued to use cannabis on occasion throughout his life.


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Michael Organ
Last updated: 12 July 2016.