John Martin (painter) - Fame


Martin enjoyed immense popularity and a print of Belshazzar's Feast hung on the parlour wall of the Brontë parsonage in Haworth, and his works were to have a direct influence upon the writings of Charlotte and her sisters. Martin's fantasy architecture influenced the Glasstown and Angria of the Bronte juvenilia, where he himself appears as Edward de Lisle of Verdopolis. His profile was raised even further in February 1829 when his elder brother, non-conformist Jonathan Martin deliberately set fire to York Minster. The fire caused extensive damage and the scene was likened by an onlooker to Martin's work, oblivious to the fact that it had more to do with him than it initially seemed. Jonathan Martin's defence at his trial was paid for with John Martin's money. Jonathan Martin, known as "Mad Martin", was ultimately found guilty but was spared the hangman's noose on the grounds of insanity.

John Martin was also occupied with schemes for the improvement of London, and published various pamphlets and plans dealing with the metropolitan water supply, sewerage, dock and railway systems. His 1834 plans for London's sewerage system anticipated by some 25 years the 1859 proposals of Joseph Bazalgette to create intercepting sewers complete with walkways along both banks of the River Thames.

During the last four years of his life Martin was engaged upon a triptych of very large biblical subjects: The Last Judgment, The Great Day of His Wrath, and The Plains of Heaven, of which two were bequeathed to Tate Britain in 1974, the other having been acquired for the Tate some years earlier. Martin suffered an attack of paralysis while painting and died on the Isle of Man.

Like some other popular artists, Martin fell victim to changes in fashion and public taste. His grandiose visions seemed theatrical and outmoded to the mid-Victorians, and after Martin died his works became neglected and gradually forgotten. "Few artists have been subject to such posthumous extremes of critical fortune, for in the 1930s his vast paintings fetched only a pound or two, while today they are valued at many thousands."

Nevertheless, in 2011-12 Tate Britain and Newcastle's Laing Art Gallery co-curated a major retrospective exhibition of Martin's work in all genres -"John Martin - Apocalypse" - including his contribution as a civil engineer. Featured in the exhibition was the fully restored "The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum", 1822. Recorded as lost in the disastrous Tate Gallery flood of 27 January 1928, the painting was rediscovered by Christopher Johnstone, a Research Assistant at the gallery, when he was researching his book "John Martin" (1974). Its restoration by Tate conservator Sarah Maisey, reveals that the original paintwork was in near pristine condition; a large area of missing canvas has been repainted by Maisey using techniques that were not available in 1973 as she describes on page 113 of the exhibition catalogue John Martin: Apocalypse (2011). When rediscovered the painting was rolled up inside the missing Paul Delaroche painting "The Execution of Lady Jane Grey" which was returned to the National Gallery, London.

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