Martin Ash’s bench situated in the museum garden. © MBND
A bench constructed from local bricks by artist and musician Sam Spoons has become the museum garden’s new centrepiece.
Martin Ash, who found fame during the 1960s as a member of experimental performance art act, the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band intended it, says his wife Judy, as a commentary on the Barnstaple brick industry: ‘emerging out of the local earth, swelling to mass production and then crumbling away to nothingness’.
Entitled Earth to Earth, the bench is made from ‘high art’ local brown clay bricks produced in 1883 at Pottington brickworks Lauder & Smith, which were discovered stacked up in the garden of Westward Ho!’s ‘haunted’ Seafield House. While Martin – who sadly passed away in 2018 – originally constructed it emerging out of a bank in the couple’s Fremington garden, it was always his intention to donate this unique fusion of Barnstaple’s nineteenth and twenty-first century artistic heritage to the museum.
‘Martin loved bricks’ says Judy. ‘He used to collect them and although born in Somerset, he always considered himself a Barnstaple lad. He wanted to give it back to Barnstaple as it is part of the town’s heritage’. An added curiosity – five large silver spoons embedded in the brickwork – pays homage to a particularly exciting chapter in Martin’s unrelentingly colourful life, during which he acquired the stage name by which he would forever be known; ‘Sam Spoons’.
Martin Ash aka Sam Spoons. © Doo Dah Diaries 2006
'...if he played the spoons in the pubs: ‘he wouldn’t have to buy a beer all night’.
Born in Bridgewater in 1942, Martin moved to Barnstaple at the age of 12, where his father Reg, a pharmacist, ran the local branch of Boots. Every Christmas, says Judy, his parents threw a big party for the staff at the family home in Ebberley Lawn, at which everyone was invited to perform a party trick. One of the porters played the spoons, and when the teenage Martin expressed an interest, taught him how to play. After leaving Barnstaple Grammar School where he became the first student to gain an A-Level in art, having studied under acclaimed artist and teacher, Ken Doughty, Martin studied illustration in Plymouth, where he would meet his future wife and soon discover that if he played the spoons in the pubs: ‘he wouldn’t have to buy a beer all night’.
In 1963 he moved to London to study Industrial Design at the Royal College of Art, landing in the capital just as the Sixties were starting to swing.
It was at the prestigious college’s bar, Martin recalled in an interview with the North Devon Journal, that he first encountered the founding members of what would become the iconic Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, one of several groups which performed and practiced there. ‘It was a mecca, the place to be seen and I couldn’t even afford to have a drink at the bar.
‘I could always play the spoons as a party piece and the Bonzos said they had a few gigs lined up and they asked me to join them. I went to the flea markets and bought any bits and pieces that made a noise and hung them all on an iron bedstead’.
The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band , Martin seated left © Doo Dah Diaries 2006
'...juggling, ventriloquism and spectacular high-speed electric spoons solos'.
The whole idea of the Bonzos, writes music critic and author, Chris Welch, was laughter and they ‘made some of the funniest sounds of the 60’s’. Among this ‘remarkable assemblage of personalities’, continues Welch, it was drummer, showman and ‘master of the Rhythm Pole’ Sam Spoons who represented ‘the true giggling spirit of the Bonzos…..
‘Mr. Spoons would leap from behind his ancient drums to embark on juggling, ventriloquism and spectacular high-speed electric spoons solos that brought the house down, amid showers of smoke, plaster and harmless rubble.’
The Bonzos’ unique take on traditional jazz and ‘silly 1920s novelty songs’ soon took off in the pubs of London, which they regularly packed out. A string of irreverent, eccentric and hilarious hits such as I’m the Urban Spaceman and I’m Gonna Bring a Watermelon to my Girl Tonight soon brought them to the attention of some of the biggest names in the capital’s art and music scene. ‘They knew the Beatles really well’ says Judy. ‘It was Martin who showed Ringo Starr how to operate the coffee machine at Abbey Road’.
In 1967, Paul McCartney invited the Bonzos to appear in the Magical Mystery Tour film and the following year they became the resident band on afternoon children’s television comedy Do Not Adjust Your Set, presented by Michael Palin and starring other future Monty Python team members Terry Jones and Eric Idle, as well as David Jason.
The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band performing on Do Not Adjust Your Set. © BFI
After a few years on the road with the Bonzos, Ash began working at the Chelsea College of Art (now University of the Arts London) where he became a senior lecturer and remained until his retirement. Someone who always needed to be busy, he also designed and built kitchens, was a keen cricketer and at the age of 65 ran the London Marathon for Age Concern during which – at the 25th mile – he stopped to give an impromptu spoon performance.
While he occasionally performed with ‘maximum voltage electric spoons’ and even drainpipes, the spoons – a battered pair of which he also donated to the museum – would always remain his signature props. He continued touring with later incarnations of the cult band, entertaining fans and influencing some of the biggest names in British comedy until just 20 days before his death. During their 40th anniversary tour, on which they were joined by comedians Stephen Fry, Ade Edmondson, Paul Merton, Bill Bailey and Phill Jupitus, Martin recalled: ‘Paul Merton came up to me in person and said: “Sam, if I hadn’t seen you doing what you were doing, I wouldn’t have taken up comedy.”
Martin always said that everyone should laugh every day, says Judy. He was always very outgoing and fun and so supportive of everyone he worked with. He would talk to anybody in any situation and was extremely caring.
Martin Ash and his bench in its original setting. © MBND
Martin Ash's bench is situated in the museum garden. both the bench and Martin's spoons are available to view on request. Written by Sophie Jay Editor Adam Murray