Tate Britain, London
21 September 2011–15 January 2012
by Dr JANET McKENZIE
John Martin (1789–1854) was hugely popular in his day but scorned by John Ruskin and William Wordsworth and never accepted by the Royal Academy. His career was quite unique in his popular appeal and the manner in which he promoted himself. He also pursued scientific interests, such as his pioneering illustrations of dinosaurs, based on fossil remains, and his unrealised but highly original engineering projects such as a sewerage system for London and plans for the embankment of the Thames and a metropolitan railway system for London. His adaptation of his paintings to printmaking, specifically mezzotint and etching, with outstanding results, enabled his work to reach a great audience. Of particular importance were his illustrations for Milton's Paradise Lost and The Bible, which enabled him to draw people’s attention to what he had to say. As well as reaching the masses and drawing vast crowds to his exhibitions, his work appealed to authors such as Charles Dickens, Edward Bulwer-Lytton and the Bronte sisters. He had royal support from Prince Albert and Leopold, King of Belgium.
Penelope Curtis, Director of Tate Britain, identifies a showmanship, which parallels, “the increasingly spectacular nature of our own time and the ways in which it is presented to us. Martin was an artist who exhibited his own art, much as Damien Hirst did in the 1990s, and who made money from its reproduction. His motives, however, were not merely commercial, for he wanted to draw people’s attention to what he had to say”.1
Born in Northumberland in July 1789, Martin trained as an ornamental painter. He moved to London in 1806 where he worked as a painter of glass and ceramics as well as a drawing teacher before embarking on a career dedicated to original and visionary work. As early as 1861, Martin’s promoters were claiming that his pictures had already been seen by eight million people. Of key importance, when seeing his work in the 21st century, is the fact that his work reached beyond a normal art audience. He sought forms of art that could be reproduced at low cost, and so his works became available to the very poor, a form of mass media, to adorn the walls of church halls and Sunday Schools. He also had a global audience, where reproductions handmade by the artist himself and others with the help of new technology, could be bought in America, China, Japan and Australia. If one views his role as redefining art within modern society, his career has indeed been undervalued. In terms of reflecting a colonial world of British supremacy, where Biblical dramas were set against English landscape; and a market financed by middle-class industrialists, and those in far-flung corners of the Empire, Martin is a more influential figure than previous histories have accorded. Accused of being no more than a curiosity, a fraud, or an eccentric, the initiatives he made by virtue of technology and social change, are in stark contrast to art historical accounts, which curator Martin Myrone, points out are elitist.
Given the extent to which art-historical accounts of nineteenth-century art have focused on the rarefied 'Romanticism' promulgated by a metropolitan literary elite and consumed by the minority, or on the secularization of culture as a consequence of industrial, political or consumer 'revolutions', or on the birth of persuasive idea of an emphatically inward-looking 'national' British culture, we may begin to feel rather ill-equipped to deal effectively with the emotional, social and geographic reach of Martin as an artist.2
Notions of good and bad taste feature regularly in appraisals or comments on Martin's work, so too the legitimate and illegitimate in art, and therefore sectors of society were pitched against each other. When the reviewer in the Westminster Review in 1834, described Martin as “the most universally popular painter of the day”,3 he was not of course paying him a compliment. “No painter ever took so sudden and violent a hold upon the fancy of the public. All at once he blazed a meteor in the world of art. The multitude were astonished and they admired.”4 The distinguished writers Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt and William Makepeace Thackeray, and the painter John Constable “are on record as viewing Martin's work as demonstrating a false understanding of the principles of the Sublime (the aesthetic category encompassing the grand and the terrible) as replacing a ‘deep’ or ‘profound’ sense of grandeur with mere repetitiousness or simple scale”.5
Critics thus implied that Martin lacked “a sense of profundity, of depth, of quality: he was shallow, quick, impoverished, sheer and shiny rather than richly textured; bright or obvious rather than properly sombre and difficult. Where writers such as this sought transcendence and subtlety, he seemed to offer the all-too literal and legible ‘material Sublime’”.6 John Ruskin found Martin’s work an offence to good taste: “Martin's works are merely a common manufacture, as much makable to order as a tea-tray or a coal scuttle – such as may be made and sold by the most respectable people, to any extent, without the least discredit to their characters.”7
The hierarchy in the arts in the 19th century is thus given vent, where fine art and industry could not exist equally. The British class prejudice too, came to the aid of those who could not countenance a man of Martin’s character, to be elevated, his humble social status, being inevitably bred to a trade, and lacking education were all used to discredit his ambition to aspire to the fine art of painting.
Paintings such as Joshua (1816), The Fall of Babylon (1819) and the spectacular Belshazzar’s Feast (1820) launched his career as none before. He cornered “biblical catastrophe” and made sufficient money to house his wife and eight children, six of whom survived in to adulthood. The financial success of his illustrations for Milton’s Paradise Lost led to him becoming an independent printmaker, a financial necessity given the time involved in the large canvases and the prices he could expect to be paid. The mezzotint and etching prints in the Tate Britain show produced in the late 1820s and 1830s, as well as illustrations for the Bible, are remarkable, subtler than the large paintings and more intriguing. So too, his late watercolour paintings are marvellously skilled and understated. Sadly Martin's income from the production of these impressive works did not secure his lasting fortune. His ambitious engineering projects cost him dear, as did the legal defense of his mentally unstable brother Jonathan, who set fire to York Minster. Combined, these left him financially vulnerable, so by 1837–8 he suffered a material crisis, forcing him to sell off the contents of his studio, etching plates of The Illustrations of the Bible included.
Thereafter he worked at a more reasonable pace, and when he was represented in the Great Exhibition of 1851, it was not as a painter but as an inventor, and he also lived partly from the patent granted to him for drainage schemes. His final paintings were three Last Judgement works, included in the Tate show. In the exhibition one feels pulled in somewhat different directions, for his work is so impressive in technical terms, such as the detail in the Coronation of costumed figures, a marvellous piece, yet from an early 20th-century modernist perspective, these must have been seen to belong to an ancien regime.
In historical terms there are key facts to consider, when appraising the importance of his career. In 1774, perpetual copyright ended, and with it literature became much more readily accessible. John Martin and his generation had access to English literature, which he in turn chose to illustrate. Shakespeare, Milton, 18th-century poets all provided sustenance for the young John Martin to transform his life through art, and he did so with an almost missionary zeal. Perhaps this can explain the message overwhelming the picture plane and the narrative crushing a more reflective approach. As with the impact of the printing press – technology which provided the masses with literary anthologies in an affordable form – Martin’s way of self promoting, reproducing, disseminating through the technology of the 19th-century puts him in a unique position in art historical terms. After the rush to make large exciting morally heavy (and uplifting) narratives, it is often in the smaller mezzotints where a preoccupation with technique serves to calm the ego or reduce his zealous approach. It is thus the prints that possess a sombre quality, perhaps intimations of the Sublime that Ruskin et al denied Martin’s larger paintings.
Various authors have observed that Martin’s zealous approach to making art was a thinly veiled attempt to cleanse the industrial age, “The Age of Despair”, “that the artist-cum-engineer Martin was on a holy mission to reform London physically, morally, and spiritually”.8 Jonathan Ribner recently claimed that an, “unyielding Protestant conscience can also be discerned in the urgency of Martin’s mission”, and that a “yearning for redemptive purity” informed Martin’s urban projects.9 His sea-monsters and dinosaurs reveal a different side to his motivation and in the essay “The prophet motive? John Martin as a civil engineer” explores Martin’s social conscience through his civil ambitions, and his disappointment at times with being an artist, which he considered did less to change the lives of those in need. Although he had been brought up in an evangelical family, he did not, like two of his brothers, seek to convert others. Many of his paintings imply a messianic zeal, whether intended or not. They were “sensational scriptural subjects dealing with the downfall of great empires, set in vast architectural spaces. The pictures seemed to represent a new kind of painting – ‘a bold experiment on the public taste’, as a contemporary critic put it a few years later”.10
Paintings such as The Great Day of his Wrath, can be seen as one of the most potent images of the Apocalypse, and as such, can be seen to have played a significant role in enabling artists and writers and filmmakers since, to envisage and create their own visions of the end of the world, the destruction of the earth. In today’s society it is difficult to judge whether such visions are real enough to prompt new response, since few artists use scripture in their art practice. The exhibition John Martin: Apocalypse has been assembled meticulously, with an excellent, scholarly catalogue and operates in a broad sense to reassess John Martin’s career.