Having the last laugh | Q&A with Martin Langford
From Beano to Blade Runner, avoiding art talk on the way – Martin Langford on the things that inspire him
Expelled from school for being the class clown, printmaker Martin Langford has had the last laugh. A member of the Royal Society of Painter-Printmakers with a cult following, hailed for his breathtakingly intricate technique, fine draughtsmanship and darkly witty world view, the 48-year-old – whose solo exhibition, ‘This Is Us’, is at For Arts Sake this autumn – talks us through his journey from teenage tearaway to etching maestro.
First, the basics – where’s home?
I was born in Kingston-upon-Thames, raised in Ruislip and I now live in South Ruislip.
And where does the printmaking magic happen?
I’m very fortunate to have a purpose-built studio at the end of the garden. It’s a brick outbuilding with insulation to floor and walls, water and electricity. It houses my half-tonne Rochat printing press and aquatint box, plan chests, water trays and the rest! I also make my own frames now, so have the equipment for that, too… things have become a bit cluttered.
What’s a typical working day?
I usually start work around 9.30am after I’ve dispatched the children to school and my wife to the station. I’ve then got a clear run until 3pm when the kids are back and wanting a snack. Then I carry on until around 6pm. I work a lot of weekends as well – family permitting.
How do you get those creative juices flowing?
I’m inspired by the knowledge that I’m very lucky to have my own studio and to be able to do what I do full-time. This spurs me on. And I listen to a mixed bag of music, from the film score of Blade Runner to Nick Cave, Bobby Darin… I also listen to Talk Radio. But most of the time I’m happy with silence. Just the birds tweeting and the distant bark of dogs and laughter coming from the infant school beside our house… oh, and a steady flow of strong coffee!
Where did your printmaking journey begin?
It began at school, at the age of 13, with my first ever linocut. But also I’d spent a lot of my childhood around the commercial printing presses where my father used to work. I smelt the ink and saw the litho presses producing print over and over again. Often, I would help out in the finishing department for pocket money. I guess it had a lasting effect. Then, at school, art was the only subject I was truly interested in and therefore the one I put the most effort towards.
You went from a BTEC in Interior Design – an intriguing choice – to the Advanced Printmaking MA at Central St Martins. How did you get there?
I didn’t quite ‘choose’ the Interior Design course. One day halfway through my A-Levels at Haydon School, in Northwood Hills, the headmaster called me up and, without any warning, told me I was expelled. Apparently, I was a ‘disruption’ to the class – but I was just trying to make people laugh. I had the ability to slow any subject down and turn it into something to laugh about, and the teachers and children were always laughing… so I thought I was doing well! Obviously not.
Yikes – what did you do next?
I was thrown out of school at a time when all interviews for art colleges in London had finished except for one: BTEC National Diploma in Interior Design at Willesden College of Technology. I thankfully got in, did the course, but to this day I still don’t understand what it was all about. We learned to design and make a table, redesign the outside of the Southbank Centre, make installations and had nude life-drawing lessons. But they also taught us a bit about architecture, which had a lasting effect on me. At the end of all that, I really had no idea what I wanted to do so I thought the best thing would be an Art Foundation course. I almost didn’t get into Watford College because my portfolio was design-based. Luckily I did – then almost got thrown off when the Dean caught me shimmying along a small ledge on the outside of the building on the second floor between two windows! I’d accepted a dare. Heated discussions between the Dean and the course leader took place, and he convinced her I had potential and should stay.
From there to a BA in Fine Art at Exeter. You’ve previously said you ‘couldn’t get on with what I viewed as the pretentious nonsense’ in the painting department. Tell us more…
From day one, I didn’t understand a lot of what the tutors were saying. ‘Juxtaposition’ was a word I’d never encountered. We were taught to use certain words and terminology to describe our work and to ‘sell’ it to the audience. But I’d signed up to do art, not marketing! To me, it felt like you were telling a joke and then having to explain it afterwards… and that was missing the point and the moment had passed. I felt very strongly that the artwork should have its own ‘voice’ and however it spoke to someone, whatever their experience of it was, that was enough. This kind of over-selling was prevalent in the painting studios so I guess it was part of the reason I leaned towards printmaking. I worked hard for three years but because I didn’t do the ‘talk’ I kept getting marked down with a D. This made me work even harder, yet I still maintained my D average. I once got a C-minus when the other students complained about my grades. Then the tutor that most had it in for me suddenly changed her tune, when I was the only student to be invited for interview by the Royal College of Art.
Was a career in art always on the cards – even from childhood?
I guess so. Art wasn’t a choice. It was just something I was compelled to do. I started drawing and caring about what I produced from a very young age.
Is there anyone that particularly inspired you along the way?
The late David Gluck RE was my tutor at Central St Martin’s for the Advanced Printmaking MA, which I was fortunate to get into straight after my degree at Exeter. He was a no-nonsense Yorkshireman who allowed me to get on with my work and knew when to approach me and offer me some help or guidance. He didn’t appreciate the fancy art talk either, so I didn’t have to do any of that.
Who are your biggest influences, artistically?
When I was 13 we went to a gallery and I saw Seurat’s pointillism paintings and they blew my mind. I couldn’t believe that someone had made a piece of artwork out of coloured dots. I started making my own black and white pointillism drawings straight away, with the finest technical drawing pen. I grew up reading comics such as Beano, Dandy, Mad Magazine, The Eagle, 2000AD, The Watchmen. Another huge inspiration is the artist Escher. And I played a lot of computer games as a kid and watched films like Blade Runner, Brazil and Metropolis – I believe they all played a part.
Your work bears comparison with some of the satirical cartoonist greats – have they also inspired you?
Absolutely – Robert Crumb, of course, and Harvey Pekar, now sadly deceased. He became a comic author in the early 70’s after seeing Crumb’s artwork. He couldn’t draw but got other artists to draw his stories. He spent 40 years writing about his everyday life in which very little happened; sometimes focusing on mundane and very simple things. He worked as a hospital filing clerk his whole life because he could never properly fund his comic career. But that was all included in his autobiographical comics. What I found inspirational about him was his dedication to his cause and his original concept, carrying on throughout his whole life even until he sadly got cancer (which he also included in the stories).
Talk us through your printmaking technique. How did you come to etching and to mezzotint above other printmaking forms?
I was doing etching on my foundation course and I took to it really well. I liked the black and white graphic quality and the fact that you didn’t quite know what you had until you inked it up and put it through a press. So there was an element of risk that appealed to me. I was introduced to mezzotint as a challenge by David Gluck. I think I got drawn to it because of the ridiculously labour-intensive process that was needed to simply prepare the plate for the image. I was purely working in mezzotint for eight years after leaving St Martins.
These days you’ve returned more to etching?
I have. I used to rent a studio in Acton for 12 years and it was a daily 18 mile round trip on my bicycle. One of my many accidents involved me fracturing my left elbow and causing slight nerve damage to my left hand – not good when you’re left-handed. It made it difficult to ‘rock’ the plates, a technique where you manually indent millions of small pits/holes into the copper for the ink to sit in. Sometimes you’re doing that for a week or two at a time. The pain in my elbow made me decide to go back to etching. Although it’s now fine, I still get pins and needles in my hand when I spend too much time putting pressure on it.
Your work is wonderfully intricate – how do you research and design them?
I mostly just draw from my mind and do very little research. Obviously, for my large print called ‘London’ I had to look at London’s buildings, but most of the other buildings are made up; so, too, any figurative work.
Where do you find inspiration?
Everyday life – that’s the main source! What you hear in the news, what you see on the street, how you observe people and their actions…
Which are your favourite prints to date?
I’m quite critical of my own work so it is difficult to say. But, at a stretch, ‘Work home, work, home, work’ and ‘After Escher’…
What has been a career highlight for you so far?
Getting elected to the Royal Society of Painter Printmakers the same year I left St Martins.
You’ve said you didn’t set out to create social commentary but that it happened organically – can you remember the first piece that led the way?
Years ago, still at school, aged around 14, I drew a picture of Santa Claus in the sky on his sledge with one hand across his eyes and the other hand doing a peace symbol while American and Russian nuclear warheads were flying through the sky.
Often your work is described as having an undercurrent of black humour – is that key?
Yes. Humour is important. It’s what got me thrown out of school but I’m OK with that. Humour gets across a difficult message really well. That’s essentially what I do.
Your exhibition is called ‘This Is Us’. What’s the meaning behind it?
It was the first idea that came into my head – it’s about how we have collectively as a society ‘created’ what we have now. The large creatures I draw, whether they are made from buildings, industry, cities or the junk we throw out, these represent ‘us’ – a manifestation of our actions.
How has your work developed and changed over the years?
I think I’ve become more cynical of our ability to change maybe… and that’s reflected in the work. I have a lot more confidence in my ideas and am less afraid of what people will think.
And, finally – if you had to sum up your work in five words, what would they be?
Social commentary, environment, humour, originality.
Martin Langford, ‘This Is Us’, For Arts Sake, to 14 October, 45 Bond Street, Ealing, W5 5AS, i[email protected]. Browse a catalogue of Martin’s works here. WIN one of Martin’s newest framed etchings, worth more than £400, here.