At home with a maestro of colour (just don’t call him a photographer)

At home with a maestro of colour (just don’t call him a photographer)

In 1988, he succumbed to Paris’ gravitational pull and relocated to pursue fashion photography, followed by a London stint three years later. There, he teamed up with Australian stylist Jane Roarty, who persuaded him to switch to shooting food and interiors.

Midnight Moondust, Thompson’s fabrics, wallpaper and lampshade at Fabscarte Salone in 2017.  Martyn Thompson

It wasn’t long before Ilse Crawford, the founding editor of British Elle Decoration, saw his work and sought him out. The pair worked on several books, including The Sensual Home (Rizzoli, 2000) and Home is Where the Heart Is (Rizzoli, 2005). He has also created two books on his own, published by Hardie Grant Books: Interiors (2011), featuring the homes of Francisco Costa, the creative director of Calvin Klein; Elsa Peretti, who designed for Tiffany & Co; and nineties style icon Anna Sui, among others, and Working Space (2013).

Meanwhile, mastheads such as W, British Vogue, Architectural Digest and Vanity Fair were commissioning him to capture the personal spaces of leading artists, artisans and designers. And advertising campaigns for Ralph Lauren, Hermès, Tiffany and Gucci kept the dollars rolling in, but Thompson was tiring of being an “interpreter”.

“You’re lending your eye and aesthetic to a job, yet the end result is ‘them’,” he explains. “I wanted something more personal, so I experimented, taking details from my photographs and working them into fabric and wallpaper designs. Next thing, someone asked me to do tea sets, another brand asked me to do rugs, another, large-scale vases.

Thompson laments the bland, stark minimalist style he has seen developers adopt of late.

Martyn Thompson

“I love the objects of the everyday. My look is sophisticated Bohemian. Everything has an element of the ‘handmade’. I don’t like things too shiny or polished. And I’m very specific in my palette. The things I find beautiful have a certain patina.”

Is that a by-product of being a photographer, I ask? An innate ability to read light and understand the mood it creates?

Thompson’s Penny vases at Willer Gallery, London, named in memory of a late friend and created as an ode to “her enduring romance of history and abundance”. Courtesy Willer Gallery

“I look for textures that involve tone and colour,” he replies. “Colour is so important to me on an emotional level. I like people to walk into the spaces I’ve created and comment on the feelings it evokes. That’s just as important as how it looks.”

Our conversation, in typical Sydney style, turns to real estate. Thompson laments the bland, stark minimalist style he has seen developers adopt of late. “I’m going to make room screens,” he declares, pointing over to a silver-grey one in the corner made from a paint-splattered printed fabric from his Accidental Expressionist (2015) collection.

Interior curated by Martyn Thompson for Jo Malone Townhouse, London headquarters of the perfume brand.  Martyn Thompson

“Dividers add character to a room and create separate zones. That’s what Sydney needs.”

Thompson ushers me into his home “studio” for a sneak preview of his upcoming second collection for British fragrance house Jo Malone London, due out in September (the first launched in May 2020). It’s immediately obvious that the painterly sensibility that has always characterised his style (Italian photographer Paolo Roversi “was a major influence for me when I was developing”) continues to evolve.

There is no escaping that painterly sensibility in Thompson’s photographs, such as this image of Venice. Martyn Thompson

The brushstrokes are raw and tactile, the hues a little more whimsical and brighter than before.

I take in Thompson’s harbour view, through Birtley’s famous arched windows, and deduce that the late-summer light is working its magic on his soul. Once a photographer …


Martyn Thompson Studio will be open soon, 19/30 Maddox Street, Alexandria, Sydney.