Explosion of interest in epic work

John Martin The Great day of his Wrath 1851-3
John Martin The Great day of his Wrath 1851-3

THINK of great British artists of the Victorian age and the names of Turner and Constable probably come to mind first, followed perhaps by William Blake or Landseer, and it is likely to be a long way down the list before John Martin earns a mention.

But Martin enjoyed immense popularity during his lifetime (1789-1854) and his apocalyptic visions and epic panoramas have influenced a host of artists down the years - not only visual arts (the Pre-Raphaelites) but fiction (Jules Verne, the Bronte sisters), cinema (DW Griffiths) and illustration (heavy metal album covers).

The exhibition, John Martin: Painting the Apocalypse, which opened this week at the Millennium Gallery, is the first major show of the artist’s work in 30 years and features some of his most his dramatic oil paintings such as Belshazzar’s Feast, The Great Day of His Wrath and The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Born in Northumberland, Martin originally trained as a painter of heraldic coats of arms before moving to London in 1806. Taking inspiration from both the grand biblical themes of the Old Testament and the rugged environment of his Northumbrian home, his large-scale works toured the country and found huge popularity with the general public, yet were often dismissed by the artistic elite. John Ruskin was particularly scathing.

There were a number of reasons why this should be.

“The fact that he was not traditionally trained and yet got successful so early in his career may not have endeared him to the establishment,” suggests Alison Morton, Exhibition Programmer.

“They also wouldn’t have appreciated his outward facing and theatrical manner which was one of the ways he captivated the general public,” adds Lisa Beauchamp, Curator of Visual Art..

Martin’s first popular success was Belshazzar’s Feast in 1921 and then he was commissioned to produce 24 engravings for a new edition of Paradise Lost which were to become arguably the definitive illustrations of Milton’s masterpiece,

Not only did they establish his reputation but brought him comparative wealth. But before long he became distracted by scientific invention and social improvement with plans to improve London’s water and drainage and transport systems. His schemes were not taken up and they virtually bankrupted him.

His solution was to embark on a piece of work designed to gain him favour. “This was the Coronation of Queen Victoria – the largest painting he had ever done,” says Alison Morton. “He was not invited to the ceremony but instead brought a hundred people who were to his studio and put them in the picture. This was a clever thing to do because these were influential people and one of them eventually bought it. It was very much his comeback picture.”

Adds Lisa Beauchamp: “It’s his only painting of contemporary life but it marked a turning point because from then on he stopped print-making and concentrated on large-scale oil paintings.”

This culminated in his giant triptych, The Great Day of His Wrath, The Last Judgment and The Plains of Heaven, which is the piece de resistance of the exhibition. It was toured long after his death, drawing huge crowds (notably in Sheffield in 1856) and going as far as the USA and Australia. This seems all the more extraordinary in that they each measure 2.5 x 3.4 metres and the logistical challenge of carting them around (as evidenced even today when the doors of the Millennium Gallery had to be removed in order to bring in The Last Judgement along the Avenue from the Winter Garden which has only ever happened with one previous exhibit, a Formula 1 racing car)

Appearing in Sheffield before it tours to Tate Britain later this year, John Martin, Painting the Apocalypse also explores the artist’s enduring influence on cinema and popular culture. Throughout the run of the exhibition there will be movie shows of Clash of the Titans and One Million Years BC, examples of the influence on pioneering special effects creator Ray Harryhausen, and 2012, science fiction disaster film directed by Roland Emmerich. Contemporary paintings by Gordon Cheung, known for capturing the mood of the global collapse of civilisation amid moral, economic, and environmental crises, are shown alongside paintings by Martin which inspired them.

John Martin, Painting the Apocalypse, which continues until September 4, is part of the Great British Art Debate, a partnership project between Museums Sheffield, Tate, Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service, and Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums.

“The idea of of the Great British Art Debate is to look at how historical collections relate to today’s society and John Martin undoubtedly does,” reflects Morton.