This review will appear in Vector 269. I encourage you, if you’re able, to go see the show before it closes in mid-January!
Tate Britain 21 September 2011 – 15 January 2012
Reviewed by Andrew M. Butler
The Deluge, engraving by William Miller after the painting by John Martin
There is a moment in a mid-1820s etching by John Martin when Biblical narrative collides with archaeology, and with market economics — in The Expulsion of Adam and Eve From Paradise the couple are running out of the Garden of Eden through a rocky landscape, a tongue of lightning in the background. Down to their right is some sort of prehistoric creature, almost certainly depicted with the latest theories of what dinosaurs would have looked like, at a time when such palaeontology was in its infancy — the word dinosaur being coined by Richard Owen in 1842. In Martin’s earlier oil painting of the same title, dated about 1813, the image is broadly similar, but lacks the creature. The addition would help him sell the print. This was no one-off — he illustrated for Gideon Mantell’s The Wonders of Geology (1838), in the form of The Country of the Iguanodon, and Thomas Hawkins’s The Book of the Great Sea-Dragons (1840) [PDF], as well producing other images of antediluvian fauna. Such depictions suggest that Martin is one of the first science-fiction artists, and his paintings of Biblical, historical and mythological scenes, often featuring disasters and tumultuous landscapes, reinforce this sense. His uneasy status as a provincial outsider having to earn a living from a metropolitan élite also anticipates the struggles for mainstream respect of genre writers.
Martin was born in 1789 in Haydon Bridge, Hexham, Northumbria, the youngest of four sons. Apprenticed to a coachmaker, he intended to learn heraldic painting, but after a dispute about terms his indenture was cancelled and instead he went to work with Italian artist Boniface Musso. Musso had already given him lessons in drawing and oil techniques in Newcastle; now Martin learnt to paint plates and glass as part of a commercial operation. In 1806, he moved to London, where he supplemented his income by producing watercolours and, in time, became a professional artist. The key place to be exhibited was the annual Royal Academy of Arts summer show, then held at Somerset House, although his first painting was rejected in 1810. The same painting, retitled, hung the following year; the breakthrough came when a member of the board of governors of the Bank of England, William Manning MP, offered fifty guineas to buy Sadak in Search of the Waters of Oblivion (1812). This painting had been inspired by James Ridley’s Oriental fantasy Tales of the Genii (1764), where the hero Sadak crawls across a mountainous landscape toward amnesia-causing waters. Further large canvases followed over the next forty years, with Martin in search of wealthy and influential patrons. But Martin also found popular acclaim, with the Biblical painting Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still upon Gibeon (1816), and was to both show his work in London exhibitions and to tour them around the world — it is thought that two million people saw his Day of Judgement triptych (1849-53) in the UK, the USA and Australia.
Martin’s paintings typically invoked a sense of the sublime. Longinus, writing about rhetoric in the first century, argued that “the true sublime uplifts our souls; we are filled with a proud exaltation and a sense of vaunting joy”, whereas the eighteenth-century Edmund Burke argued that “delightful horror […] is the truest test of the sublime”. In Martin’s case, the feeling is invoked by vast landscapes containing tiny figures in the fore- to midground to give a sense of scale — and his canvases tend to be portrait in orientation, allowing for the composition to tower above the viewer. The terrain is often bowl-shaped, with cliffs and trees taking up the left and right sides of the frame, and then, further back, rivers, lakes, seas and classical cities in the haze of the background. Sometimes the sky forms an answering semicircle, perhaps with clouds of fire, and in some canvases the patina of the painting is cracked in concentric circles. Frequently, the sky is scarred with lightning, scratches across the canvas. In The Deluge (1826), the sea curves around the bottom of the canvas, sweeping the boat clockwise, with storm clouds completing a circuit around the top of the composition, an oval of fairer weather and a glimpse of cities in the distance between them.
The Deluge is one of several paintings Martin made of the Biblical flood, alongside The Eve of the Deluge (1840) and The Assuaging of the Waters (1840); the painting of The Expulsion of Adam and Eve From Paradise, alongside The Garden of Eden (1821), The Fall of Babylon (1819), Belshazzer’s Feast (1820), Adam and Eve Entertaining the Angel Raphael (1823) and The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (1852), suggests an Old Testament theme running through his work, especially the sense of a powerful, destructive, vengeful God. The success of Belshazzer’s Feast, which was reproduced in several versions, clearly suggested that there was a market for such apocalyptic thrills, in a Britain which in the process of being changed forever by the industrial revolution and a network of railways threading its way between mines and factories and ports, and between London and the provinces. The aristocracy and the upper middle classes could go on Grand Tours across Europe, to the Matterhorn, the Alps, Venice, Sicily and beyond, but Martin had been on no such journey and locates such landscapes within England. It is tempting to see the valley of the Tyne with Newcastle perched above it as one inspiration for his topography.
It was apparently a journey through the industrialised Black Country which pointed him to the New Testament subject of The Great Day of His Wrath, a book of Revelation style destruction of Babylon in which volcanic powers rip open a landscape, and vast boulders — on which ruined cities can be glimpsed — are thrown through the air. A second painting, The Last Judgement (1849-53), has a landscape riven in two, beneath Christ and the Angels sitting in court at the top of the picture against a more heavenly sky. On the left of the canvas are the saved, including a range of politicians, poets and artists from antiquity to the present day, on the right, across a chasm filling with corpses, are the damned. Before the painting was damaged, there was a train being driven towards the abyss. The trilogy is completed by The Plains of Heaven (1851-3), a gentler pastoral of the era after the Second Coming, the green of grass and trees surrounding a rich azure of sky and sea. But Martin also looked to Pompeii and Herculaneum for his subjects, and its destruction by volcano (1822, 1822-6), and a classical story of Marcus Curtius being swallowed up by a chasm in a city street.
From the 1820s onwards he was developing plans for canals across London to provide a water supply for London and Westminster, for a sewage system to improve London’s hygiene (and to provide fertiliser for farms) and for a network of railways circling central London and along the banks of the Thames. In this work he anticipated Joseph Bazalgette’s improvements to the London drains and the Embankment and the piecemeal engineering of the London Underground network and overground lines, then in its infancy. Funds were never quite available to translate Martin’s plans into practice. He was also friends with Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Michael Faraday, Charles Babbage and other scientists such as Georges Cuvier, a French palaeontologist. In the painting Arthur and Aegle in the Happy Valley (1841), inspired by a Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton poem, Martin insists that the background constellations are accurate in astronomical terms, even if the topic was fictional. He drew on the latest science and engineering.
Martin also knew Charles Barry, who won the competition to design the neo-gothic yet classical new Houses of Parliament, and it is likely this architecture also fed into his work. One could scale his painting of Balshazzer’s Feast to discover how many miles long his palace interior was — or so Martin argued — and contemporary archaeology was another source of inspiration and publicity. Pamphlets and handbills listed details of the people painted in crowd scenes and drew attention to details. All of this contributes to the showmanship which Martin clearly possessed in spades — but also, perhaps, to the sense of insecurity from being an outsider, a working-class artist with little training. Conspicuous testimony to his sense of pride is a piece of furniture, shown in Apocalypse: a bureau with drawers labelled for Martin’s various projects and honours. At the 1851 Great Exhibition, he presented himself as an engineer rather than as an artist.
Salespitches remained necessary, as the art market ebbed and flowed in the era of J.M.W. Turner and John Constable, the former artist stopping at nothing to gain advantage and positioning in the Royal Academy summer exhibitions. Whilst it was possible to sell similar paintings in several sizes, this undercut their exclusiveness, so Martin made a virtue of copying through the comparatively mass medium of the mezzotint. But the mezzotints enabled Martin to revise his earlier compositions — hence the appearance of a prehistoric creature alongside Adam and Eve. Martin employed other engravers to make plates of his images, although he was not always happy with their work and would sometimes reject it. Other times he would do his own engraving, and for a period set up a state of the art press in his own home where he supervised the production of mezzotints by professional printers.
One series of mezzotints were commissioned in 1824 by Septimus Prowett as illustrations to John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667), returning to Old Testament scenes, but also paving the way for scenes from Revelation and the New Testament in general. The most striking of these depict Satan, especially Satan in Council, whose composition seems to anticipate the council chamber in the Star Wars prequel trilogy (and Lucas apparently was inspired by Martin’s work; the empty landscape of Solitude (1843) is echoed in the climax of THX 1138 (1971) or the deserts of Tatooine). Martin went on to work on illustrations of the Bible, a less successful project than he had hoped, as was his attempt to sell direct to customers, bypassing the established English network of print emporia. Worse, he undercut himself by designing cheaper plates to be printed by Edward Churton. Nevertheless Martin still made more money from his mezzotints than his paintings — Michael Campbell, a Martin collector and scholar, suggests up to £25,000 — although the market declined through the 1830s.
Perhaps such mentions of money are vulgar — but I see in Martin a kindred spirit of today’s science-fiction writers. He might not have quite been competing for the reader’s beer money, but he knew how to exploit a successful image in more than one format, and he knew how to bring showmanship to his exhibitions. In the lack of official recognition from membership of the Royal Academy nor was he knighted — although the Belgians honoured him — we might also think of the anxieties over the injustices of the Booker Prize or snootiness about the Granta Best of Young Novelists lists. But mostly it is in his fusion of science and art, his use of the sublime, and his creation of apocalyptic imagery that never quite feels reducible to allegory or political parable. (His painting The Last Man (1833) is inspired by an 1823 Thomas Campbell poem rather than Mary Shelley’s 1826 novel, but his accommodation of Jane Loudon as a house guest might put him somewhere in the genesis of The Mummy! Or A Tale of the Twenty-Second Century (1827).)
His work remains sublimely astounding. If you want to see the inspiration for a hundred ends of the world, or be inspired yourself, immerse yourself in Martin’s art, which is, in the words of curator Martin Myrone, “suspended or caught between mass production and the unique, the popular and the rarefied, the industrialised and the artistic, the sensationalist and the scholastic.” And that, after all, is the place where we often find sf.
Adams, Max (2010) The Prometheans: John Martin and the Generation That Stole the Future, London: Quercus.
Aristotle/Horace/Longinus (1965) Classical Literary Criticism, trans. T.S. Dorsch, Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Burke, Edmund (2008) A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics.
Feaver, William (1975) The Art of John Martin. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Martin, John (2011) Sketches of My Life, ed. Martin Myrone, London: Tate.
Myrone, Martin (ed.) (2011) John Martin: Apocalypse, London: Tate.