John Martin – Apocalypse

Another review of an art exhibition just before it is due to close. I must try to get my act together next time.

The current exhibition at Tate Britain features the Cecil B de Mille of the early c19th Art World John Martin.

John Martin
Portrait of John Martin by Henry Warren, 1839

John Martin was born on 19 July 1789 in Haydon Bridge near Newcastle. His family appears to have been fairly poor. He did not have much in the way of formal training in fine art. He was originally apprenticed to a coach painter. After the coach painter broke the terms of the indentures by failing in increase John Martin’s wages, he went to work for Boniface Musso, an Italian artist who had based himself in Newcastle. In 1806 he left Newcastle for London where he intended to establish himself as an artist. Initially he supported himself by working as a ceramic painter. (The only known ceramic by him is on display in Room 1)

Martin became known as a painter of the “Sublime” in other words as a painter of awe-inspiring and terrible scenes. He deliberately designed his paintings to stand out from the crowd in shows such as the Royal Academy and as such they took on what we would now see as a cinematic quality. Indeed his work can be likened to a block-buster action film, full of drama and possibly too many special effects. I’ll come back to this aspect in another post, because it is an area that I would like to explore in more depth.

I have liked John Martin’s work for a long time, in fact since the first time I saw his Last Judgement Triptych. His best paintings have a grandeur and a touch of madness about them that I love. However during his lifetime (and since) the criticism that his work is repetitive and displays good craftsmanship but not true artistic merit is often made. The charge of repetition especially, does have a basis. He painted a series based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and while I wouldn’t say the every painting is the same, there is more than a theme running through them. In addition the mountains in almost every painting that features mountains, from “Clytie” in 1814 through to “The Plains of Heaven” in 1854, are essentially the same, albeit very dramatic, mountains.

Notice any similarities between the paintings?

I can forgive him, he was a man from a poor background making his living by selling his paintings. He found a formula that sold and stuck to it. Like Albrecht Durer (1471 – 1528), another artist who relied on what he sold to keep body and soul together, he moved into printmaking. And although ultimately it was only marginally profitable and a major drain of resources, like Durer, he produced some of his finest work in this medium.

He was initially commissioned by Samuel Prowett to create a series of prints to illustrate John Milton‘s Paradise Lost. Later, inspired by Prowett’s venture, between 1831 and 1835 Martin published his own illustrations to the Old Testament.
His illustrations for Paradise Lost are quite stunning, I have included two below, but to see more follow the links.

Part of the reason for John Martin’s decline in fame, and possibly where some of the idea that he was a craftsman and not a painter came from, was that for the best part of a decade from the late 1820’s he devoted most of his time to trying to produce a solution to London’s sewage disposal problems. The exhibition includes some of his plans and proposals for the sewage system. They are beautifully drawn and to this (mechanical) engineer’s eye seem to be workable solutions. They were never executed in his lifetime. The authorities rejected his plans, deeming them to be too expensive. Although whether they would have been more expensive in the long-term than doing nothing is less clear. However when Joseph Bazalgette designed and built the London wide sewage system in the 1860’s (a system that is still largely in use today) He adopted and incorporated many of John Martin’s ideas.

The main focus of the exhibition are what are known as “The Three Great Paintings” or “The Last Judgement Triptych”. John Martin painted them in the period shortly before his death. He completed them in 1853 shortly before a stroke paralysed his right side. He never recovered and died on February 17, 1854.

The Great Day of His Wrath (1851-53)

“The Great Day of His Wrath” based on the passage from The Book of Revelation Chapter 6 vs12-17 shows Marin at his apocalyptic apogee. We see people, buildings, whole cities, and mountains being hurled to their destruction in a chasm of fire. Martin is stating his belief that nothing can escape the wrath of God and indeed it is futile to even try.

The Last Judgement 1853

Again based on passages in the Book of Revelation, Martin allows himself to play at being the Last Judge, on the right hand of Christ (left hand side of the painting) are the elect, the chosen, who will live for ever, with God in the New Jerusalem. On the left hand, being thrown into the pit of fire, along with Satan and the Whore of Babylon are the damned. Among the chosen are the likes of Shakespeare, Milton, Isaac Newton and a few Kings that Martin approved of. Among the damned are Popes, and priests, a couple of Kings he disapproved of, and I think Oliver Cromwell. Originally there was an index to the painting naming both the damned and the chosen.

The Plains of Heaven 1851-53

This is the most serene and peaceful of the three paintings.It contrasts dramatically with “The Great Day of His Wrath” hanging on the other side of the central panel of “The Last Judgement”. Again a passage from the Book of Revelation is the inspiration, this time Chapter 21.

Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

Martin has produced his vision of paradise. In the foreground wearing white we see the chosen. Behind them is a deep blue heavenly lake, filled by the waters of rushing rivers and waterfalls. Majestic snow-capped mountains surround the scene, and in the background a faint, almost ghostly New Jerusalem descends to Earth.

The three paintings became famous in the years after John Martin’s death. The paintings toured widely both in Britain and the United States. They were described as “the most sublime and extraordinary paintings in the world” and valued at over 8000 guineas. Typically the exhibition would include a diorama and narration. The Tate puts on a modern take on this, projecting computer graphics onto the paintings. This makes the paintings seem as if they are backlit. The computer graphics are obviously capable of effects that the Victorians using gas lamps couldn’t manage, but the narration seemed authentically contemporary and suitably over the top.

Although prints of the paintings sold in large numbers, John Martin’s style of vast and dramatic paintings now seemed outmoded to the mid and late Victorians. The paintings themselves never found a buyer and by the 20th century his work had fallen into complete obscurity. When his painting of “The Destruction of Pompeii” was badly damaged in a flood in 1928, it was not considered to be worth restoring. The Last Judgement paintings were sold in 1935 for seven guineas.

It is only comparatively recently that John Martin’s true worth as an artist has been recognised again and “The Destruction of Pompeii” was successfully restored for the exhibition.


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