Robb Reader: Cornwall Artist Martyn Dempsey

How a journey south-west proved to be an act of artistic enlightenment to a British painter and sculpture whose work is a restorative salve for these tricky times.

From street art on the drizzle-soaked back-streets of Manchester to riding the breakers and capturing the natural nuances of England’s far-west, Martyn Dempsey’s journey has been one of discovery and artistic enlightenment. Originally self-taught, he has since studied contemporary abstract painting at the St Ives School of Art at Porthminster Studios, as well as the Florence Studio d’arte Toscanella.

His work is currently on display at the Fornaciai Art Gallery Florence, while the Rothchilds, Lawrence Llewelyn Bowen, Vanessa Redgrave, HSBC Bank and Morgan Stanley are all on his burgeoning client list.

What was it about Cornwall that first inspired you when you visited aged 16?
Well I grew up in Manchester – one of five living in a council house, very cramped – in late 1960s. It was a tough place. I was spraying [graffiti] in the streets and wasn’t going to school – I had a speech impediment and I’m dyslexic, so that never helped me. So I left home for something new.

I got the chance to go to Cornwall, and I was washing pots in a hotel when I overheard the waiter say he had been working in Cornwall for the summer, and he mentioned surfing. I did some research than headed down to the waves. It was amazing – I’d never seen palm trees, and the blue, clear seas and golden sands were overwhelming, in contrast to Manchester. Looking at nature in this way, and surfing within it, started to really change me and the way I thought about life. This was my inspiration.

Dempsey, in his Cornwall studio 

So, you started painting and sculpting – how did you go about developing a unique style?
Well, I was always creating something on paper from a very early age, as I had a feeling inside that this could be what I would do with my life. So I’m self-taught artist – I was never really looking at anyone else, I was keeping myself blinkered – and I think developing a style of your own is the way forward.

When I decided to go at this full time, I started experimenting with different drying times for different layers of paint, oils acrylics, charcoal inks – anything – so each painting was an experiment. And then, despite my naivety, I started to create some cool works, and every time I painted one it would sell. So it’s a journey that never stops for me. I’ve since been to schools of art in Cornwall, Florence and The Tate Modern and I find it’s like riding a bike: it’s about techniques which can easily be taught. It’s not very inspiring for me it’s more. I feel my art comes from within a journey – that’s how I paint.

How exactly did the likes of Sir Terry Frost, Matthew Lanyon, John Miller and Patrick Heron influence you?
Well I have my studio in St Ives, and I’ve always been drawn down there – it’s a big cliché, everyone says it in the art world, but the light is amazing – and it also has such a history of amazing artists that have ended up working there: modern, contemporary artists, who were developing new modern art during and after the war. The work is simple but full of life, space and colour and this art really inspired me. So I went out of my way to get into The New Craftsman Gallery in St Ives. After a year, I finely got taken on by the amazing Mrs Redgrave. And my work was placed alongside the greats!

Florence – Dempsey’s second home, artistically speaking 

How do you feel the pandemic might affect the art world?
I think it’s been a wake-up call for us all. People are so busy these days, striving for more material things, and actually [what we need most] is sometimes right in front of us. It’s very sad times for people, with mental health, dealing with all this huge change and getting our heads around not cuddling someone when we meet – it’s become a very standoffish world, and leaves many feeling cold.

But on a good note, the arts have been helping so many people in lockdown. People having time for themselves to create – it’s such a healing process, and gives your mind time out. Every one of us can create – no one is better than anyone else. And who is the judge of what’s good? I’d like to meet him. How can you put a price on art?

The other pastime that keeps Dempsey in tune with Cornwall’s natural attributes 

What kind of effect do artists have on each other, when they interact closely and intimately – such as your recent experience with Lukas Brandli?
It’s something I’m very new to, as I’ve been on my own in my studio for decades. So working alongside Lukas was an amazing experience for us both, as he is classically trained at the Florence Academy of Art as a fine artist, while I’m self-taught, so we could bounce off each other and push ourselves. Don’t get me wrong – we had are disagreements – but that’s cool. That’s what you need to improve. We would paint from five in the morning until late in the evenings. He’s become a very good friend of mine, and we will work again, I hope, in the future.

I think working with another painter only works if you’re radically different. When we first met, he was my teacher at the Florence Studio d’arte Toscanella – it was funny, we would go outside for a smoke together and I would be in bits, saying “This is very different for me drawing all day – when can I start painting?” He said “I think this might be the wrong course for you!” “Why is that?” “Well you modern – we don’t do that in Florence.”

I said, “Well you do now!”

See below for more of Martyn Dempsey’s work

“Blue Mood” 

“Sri Lanka Moments” 

“The Storm” 

“Lands End Cornwall” 

“Wild Cornish flowers” 

“Sailing Away” 

“On The Beach”