It’s the end of the world as he knew it

John Martin's Clytie
John Martin's Clytie
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John Martin was an audacious and popular 19th century artist who was overshadowed by Turner. Now his stock is high. Sheena Hastings reports from Sheffield.

THE public loved him, although the reaction of the artistic establishment ran from scepticism to ridicule. The writer Thackray called John Martin’s grand theatricality and apocalyptic vision “huge, queer and tawdry”. His work gradually disappeared from view after his death, but the first major exhibition in 40 years is now awakening a new audience to the drama and scale of his imagination.

John Martin’s work may have been eclipsed in his lifetime by JMW Turner but something about his paintings struck a chord with ordinary art lovers and touring shows of his work both in this country and abroad were popular. They also sold well. Yet, although the Royal Academy did agree to show his work after initial reluctance, he was never completely accepted by them and nor was he made an Academician. You do have to wonder whether there was a prevailing element of undiluted snobbery about the rise of a major painter who was very much a “people’s artist” from the humble working class beginnings of a one-room cottage in Haydon Bridge, Northumberland.

Martin’s work has swung in and out of fashion since, but curators of a new show at Sheffield’s Millennium Gallery feel the time is ripe for a 21st century reappraisal of a man who has inspired other artists, including cinematographers, to create work which features a similarly powerful and almost engulfing view of man faced with the might of forces around him. His interest in industry and architecture are embraced by many of his works, as earthly creatures fall back in awe at glimpses of heavenly temples and angels above and the furnaces of hell below.

Among the 60-odd works (from national, regional and private collections including the Tate), in the Sheffield show are Belshazzar’s Feast (1820), The Expulsion of Adam and Eve (1823-7) and The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (1852). The exhibition will also include film screenings showcasing how Martin’s paintings continue to inspire the imagery of epic cinema from Ray Harryhausen to the blockbusters of Roland Emmerich and Don Chaffey’s One Million Years BC. The show has been co-curated by Tate, the Laing Gallery (Tyne & Wear Archives and Museums) and Museums Sheffield.

It has already drawn appreciative crowds in Newcastle, and will move on to Tate Britain after Sheffield. Each venue has given its own “spin” to the story, says exhibition programmer Alison Morton. “We’re taking a chronological view of the man, his work and the influence he exerted over generations of artists in different media. His interests were so varied. Martin illustrated a Bible, which ingrained his work deep in the national psyche. He created landscapes and his vivid, striking use of colour came from the fact that he had not had the same formal artistic training as many of his contemporaries, but had worked in glass and ceramics.

“After an initial period in London when he did printmaking, he started the very large oil on canvas paintings in which the landscape is huge and powerful, with tiny figures almost lost in it. He was criticised for this, with detractors saying that he did it because he was not good at figures. However, Martin wanted the people in the paintings to look dwarfed by the force of nature.”

A man with a great interest in everything from literature to engineering and the great money-making schemes of the day – some of which he invested in and almost bankrupted himself at one point – Martin’s work also reflected the industrial revolution and world events such as the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia in 1816. The resulting cloud of volcanic ash led to what was known as “the year without a summer” and many artists, from the poets Shelley and Byron to Martin himself, were moved to write and paint apocalyptically in response to the prevailing feeling that the end of the world could be nigh.

“You can see how around that point his work became dominated by heavy dark skies and the continuing motif of human figures overwhelmed by the landscape,” says Lisa Beauchamp, curator of visual art at Museums Sheffield. “Martin didn’t obey the artistic rules. He had a theatrical aesthetic and wanted to create head-turning, crowd-pleasing work translating important stories from the Bible and mythology into painterly visions. Those stories were very familiar to people then and his paintings were loved by the masses and many contemporaries.”

The works, particularly his prints, are beautifully sharp and modern in their quality and configuration, and some of the paintings feature collage figures placed on a completed work – a technique no-one would turn a hair at now, but which was probably viewed suspiciously back then.

One of the most arresting paintings is The Coronation of Queen Victoria. Martin wasn’t actually at the event, but painted it later, inviting various worthies who had been there to his studio for sittings so that he could place them accurately in the throng.

Typically populist, he focused on the moment when a man close to the action collapsed and the young Queen reached to help him. It’s a front-page incident, and as a “comeback” painting, (after Martin lost all his money in schemes to improve water and sewage systems for London), it certainly did the trick.

The centrepiece is the vast tryptych of Biblical paintings The Plains of Heaven, The Great Day of His Wrath and The Last Judgement.

The hellfire and brimstone may seem less relevant today, but the evidence of Martin’s influence on both film makers and contemporary artists such as Gordon Cheung add a new twist to the old visions.

John Martin – Painting The Apocalypse is at The Millennium Gallery, Sheffield from June 22 to September 4. Information 0114 278 2600 or www.museums-sheffield.org.uk

From humble beginnings

John Martin was born in Northumberland in 1789. As an apprentice to a coachbuilder he learned heraldic painting, then went on to work in enamel and glass painting. In 1806 he moved to London, where he gave drawing lessons, made prints and watercolours and painted on china and glass. He sent his first oil painting to the Royal Academy in 1811 but it was not hung. Later the RA did show it, and Martin then created a succession of large oil paintings – including grand scenes inspired by the Old Testament. He died in 1854.