Frank Vernon Martin was born in Dulwich, South London in 1921. His father was a scientist, Secretary of the Royal Institution of Great Britain, the oldest independent research body in the world, and the biographer of the English chemist and physicist, Michael Faraday. His mother was a professional stage actress during the 1920s and 30s and, as a child, Martin frequently accompanied her to the theatre. These experiences inspired in him a lifelong fascination with the acting profession which was later reinforced as an avid filmgoer.
Martin was educated at Uppingham School, from which he won a history scholarship to Hertford College, Oxford. After a short wartime degree at Oxford, he was commissioned into the Royal Artillery in 1941 and served in the British Army until 1946.
After the war he decided to pursue an artistic career and enrolled in the printing department of Saint Martin's School of Art, London. Here he was taught etching by Clifford Webb, RE, RBA (British, 1895–1972) and wood engraving by Gertrude Hermes (British, 1901–1983), one of the 20th century's finest wood engravers. He became her studio assistant for colour printing.
In 1949, Martin became a freelance illustrator, wood engraver and commercial artist. His first commercial work was as a fashion illustrator for The Sunday Times (1949-50), after which he began his career as a book-illustrator, creating many illustrations for books and magazines as well as private clients.
In 1952, Martin was elected to the Society of Wood Engravers and, though new to printmaking, he immediately found himself appointed Secretary. Here he met the artist John Buckland-Wright (New Zealand, 1897-England, 1954) and studied etching with him. The following year Buckland-Wright found him a teaching post at the Camberwell School of Art where he was to teach etching, engraving, lino-cutting and graphic design for the next 27 years. Martin proved to be an outstanding teacher, becoming Senior Lecturer in Graphic Design in 1965-76 and Head of the Department of Graphic Arts from 1976 until his retirement in 1980. He devoted the final 25 years of his life to his art.
Through Buckland-Wright, Martin met the founder of the Folio Society, Charles Ede, who commissioned 11 two-colour wood engravings for an edition of Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of St Luis Rey (1956). He received seven further major Folio Society commissions in the succeeding ten years, including Stendhal's Scarlet and Black (1965), whose illustrations were described as “the best series of post-war English illustrations”. In 1961 he was given an exhibition at the Folio Society.
In 1964 Evelyn Waugh invited Martin to design a letterhead for his new home and, in the following year, he created illustrations of Tennyson and Browning for the covers of the volumes in the Oxford Standard Authors series.
In the 1970s and early 1980s Martin concentrated on his limited edition prints and amongst his favourite subjects was cinema, especially the Hollywood musicals of the 1920s and 30s. He began the production of large linocuts, then woodcuts, etchings and drypoints, in colour and monochrome, some of which he published himself, while others were published by galleries in Britain and the United States. These series of prints were sold in both countries and became much sought after. At the same time he produced a considerable number of large drawings and watercolour paintings many of which are illustrated in his book Hollywood-Continental, published in 1988.
In 1970 Martin was invited to hold an exhibition of his Hollywood series at the Roundhouse, London, to celebrate the 75th anniversary of cinema. The famous Hollywood silent movie star, Harold Lloyd, opened the exhibition and subsequently visited Martin in his Chiswick studio.
The Folio Society tempted Martin back to illustration in 1982, commissioning 15 engravings for The Diary of a Young Lady of Fashion, after which the resurgent private press movement provided a number of other commissions. Having bought a little house near Dieppe, and had an association with the area since his childhood in the 1930s, Martin wrote and illustrated a book published in 1996 by The Previous Parrot Press. Newhaven-Dieppe sought to re-introduce the town of Dieppe and its region to English readers and to convey something of the pleasure he himself experienced as a resident in that corner of France. A little later, in 1998, a full catalogue of his work, The Wood Engravings of Frank Martin, was produced, at the end of which Martin modestly described himself as a "jobbing artist". In later years, Martin wrote and illustrated four large limited edition books, the last of which was Drawn From Life (2005), a series of reminiscences about the young female models whose likenesses and personalities he had encapsulated over the years.
Martin held his first one-man exhibition in 1956. This was followed by many others at locations including the Folio Society, National Film Theatre, Lyric Theatre Hammersmith, Editions Graphiques Gallery, Atrium Gallery and the Leeds International Film Festival; he exhibited at the Royal Academy in London and, internationally, in Ireland, Germany, New Zealand and the United States. It is a measure of his success that in the 1970s he held no fewer than 11 one-man shows. He was one of the longest-serving illustrators for the Folio Society and his work also featured in several British television programmes.
Martin was elected a Member of the Society of Wood Engravers in 1952 (Honorary Secretary, 1952-59), a Member of the Society of Industrial Artists in 1959, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers and Engravers in 1961, an Honorary Academician of the Accademia delle Arti del Disegno, Florence, Italy, in 1965, and a Member of the Graphic Design Board of the Council for National Academic Awards from 1977-1981.