John Martin: Apocalypse, Tate Britain, London

Lit by a dying crimson sun, the landscape has imploded and is being sucked into a vast black chasm. From the upper left lightning jags into a bare peak, smashing away enormous lumps of rock, while opposite an entire mountainside, on which a city once stood, surges up like an ocean wave, then tips and topples into the void, spilling the buildings into the air as it falls. In the foreground, clinging pathetically to the quaking earth, remnants of humanity are swept to their deaths, screaming in terror.

This is the title-work and centrepiece of Apocalypse, Tate Britain’s epic show about the painter and printmaker John Martin, the most comprehensive survey seen since the artist’s death in 1854. Formally titled “The Great Day of His Wrath”, the canvas stands as one of the greatest hit pictures in British art history: its size, cosmic violence, garish effects and vision of human puniness struck millions of Victorians with awe when it was seen, with its companion pieces “The Last Judgement” and “The Plains of Heaven”, not only on first exhibition but during decades of touring theatres, assembly halls and circus tents in Britain, the US and Australia. No original British oil paintings had ever been viewed so eagerly and by so many; and none had made such a sensational effect.

The triptych was the culmination of Martin’s life-long preoccupation with natural, historical and, ultimately, divine destructive force. This interest was notably shared by two of his brothers: William, a self-taught theorist who denied Newtonian materialism with his own millenarian cosmology; and Jonathan, who was even more extreme. Prompted by visions, Jonathan set fire to York Minster in an attempt to overthrow the Anglican church (“you serpents and vipers of hell, you wine bibbers and beef eaters, whose eyes stand out with fatness”) and, with luck, the world itself. He was committed to Bedlam in 1829. The brothers were close and, touchingly, John never repudiated Jonathan, but supported and regularly visited him in the madhouse.

The Martins were of humble Northumbrian origin, and John’s apprenticeship in ceramic and glass painting gave little hint of his adult capabilities and ambitions. After losing his job with William Collins’s glass works in the Strand, he turned with astonishing confidence to large-scale subject painting in oils, and soon attracted attention at the Royal Academy by showing dramatic landscapes on mythical or literary themes. These were inspired by 18th-century devotees of the sublime such as Salvator Rosa and Philip James de Loutherbourg, but from the start Martin was determined to outstrip his models and was soon producing Biblical catastrophes of a kind that also, from time to time, attracted his near contemporary and friend J.M.W. Turner. “The Fall of Babylon” (1819) and “Belshazzar’s Feast” (1820) were among Martin’s biggest early successes, and they are pictures that do not compromise. The natural and architectural backgrounds are on a dizzying scale; the colours, or so the professional critics thought at the time, are garish and unnatural – to which Martin’s answer was: so much the better. The public loved them, giving rise to charges of vulgarity that put Martin at odds with the art establishment, especially at the Royal Academy where, for a significant period, he did not exhibit.

Martin’s craftwork background, oddball family, and nonconformist preoccupation with the millenarian end-time and divine retribution, make it tempting to imagine him as a slightly bonkers outsider-artist, similar to that other RA refusenik, William Blake. But while Blake achieved scant renown, Martin made real money and became a celebrity. He lived in a fine house, was drawing master to Princess Charlotte, then heir to the throne, and a close friend of her husband Leopold, the future king of Belgium. Martin threw famous parties attended by a wide spectrum of London’s fashionable society and intellectual elite, and drew an excellent income from his paintings and his busy print shop.

The first three rooms of Tate Britain’s exhibition trace Martin’s path as he progressed towards ever more apocalyptic subjects. But then, in room four, you are confronted with something in a completely different register: surveys and engineering drawings that Martin made to improve London’s sewage and transport systems. At first sight they present a wholly unexpected side to the man but, in effect, these appeals for civic reform bear a complementary relationship to the panoply of imagined disasters. If London, with its slums, its cholera, its choked roads and unsanitary river, was a modern Babylon or Gomorrah, ever poised on the brink of perdition, it might yet be saved by modern technology and rational improvement. Martin almost bankrupted himself promoting such schemes: a Thames embankment enclosing a great sewer, an underground railway, glassed-in shopping malls, an orbital transport system and other schemes. They came to nothing in his lifetime, but all were eventually realised in one form or another.

This is a rich, informative and occasionally hair-raising show. The big canvases, and the special son et lumière presentation for the “Last Judgement” triptych, are powerful experiences, but there are quieter pleasures too. Some of the landscape watercolours are delightful and the prints are among the most brilliant engravings ever produced in England.

Posterity was cruel to Martin. His popular successes meant the artistic elite did not take him seriously and, as the gloss wore off them, his works suffered great indignities, changing hands for a pittance, trundled around the world as a raree show and, in the case of “The Destruction of Pompeii” and “Herculaneum”, grotesquely damaged when the Tate’s basement was flooded in 1928 after torrential, almost Martinesque, rains burst the very Thames embankment that the artist had dreamed of creating. Thanks to the skill of conservator Sarah Maisey, the painting has been brought back from the dead. If Martin’s reputation has shown its own Lazarus-like tendencies in recent years, it is good to see him now, fully out of the tomb and strutting his stuff once more.

Continues until January 15,

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