Magazine article The Spectator

Sensation Seeker

Magazine article The Spectator

Sensation Seeker

Article excerpt

John Martin: Apocalypse

Tate Britain, until 15 January

For far too long, John Martin (1789-1854) has been dismissed as 'Mad' Martin, the prophet of doom. In the eyes of many, this unacademic painter was a grotesque curiosity, producing colossal pictures of apocalyptic destruction, crude dramas of catastrophe and tumult, much to the delight of the populace. The mere fact that he was so popular an image-maker made him irredeemably vulgar (rather like Lowry today), and the cognoscenti looked for faults rather than appreciating his strengths.

In fact, Martin was a reforming inventor as well as a painter, much concerned with draining the marshes around London and ensuring a pure water supply for the capital, simply because he wanted, as he says in his 'autobiography', to improve the condition of the people. This document, published now by the Tate as 'Sketches of My Life' (£4.99), is a mere seven pages but full of interest. Far from being deranged, John Martin was a typical figure of the age: self-reliant, immensely energetic, ambitious and successful. It's high time the epithet 'mad' was dropped from his profile.

He trained as a decorative painter, working on glass and china, but soon recognised the potential of dramatic landscape painting. He was, first and foremost, a commercial artist, and he was shrewd enough to identify a market and exploit it, going for sensation (like any young British artist of the 1990s) and making biblical devastation and natural disaster his specialism. He was not naturally religious, though he acted the visionary with conviction;

his private inclination was rationalist and scientific. Catching the public eye in 1816 with 'Joshua commanding the Sun to stand still', he enjoyed great success in the 1820s before suffering something of an eclipse and financial crisis towards the end of the 1830s.

His career trajectory was revealing of the man: he grew so incensed by the illegal pirating of his works in print (even though he attempted to do all his printmaking himself) that he turned to town-planning, and nearly bankrupted himself in trying to improve the common weal. Not prepared to be beaten, however, he made a calculated comeback to the art world with a crowd-pleasing 'Coronation' painting in 1837, and went on to paint some of his best pictures.

Martin soon gave up on the Royal Academy as a shop window, deciding it was a monopoly ruled by bigots, and sought alternative ways of reaching the public. He hired a room at the famous Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly and hung his paintings there; also at the Western Exchange, a kind of 'high-class shopping centre' (as the catalogue has it).

Later he toured his great 'Last Judgment' triptych around the country, allowing it to be shown in theatres and music halls as well as galleries. It went on the road for 20 years, travelling as far as Australia and America, with an estimated audience of 8 million. In using these alternative exhibition strategies, Martin foreshadowed the YBAs of our own time, who have rented warehouses or taken over disused shops to show their work.

The Tate's exhibition, as nearly every show in the Linbury Galleries, is too drawn out, though full of prodigious things. In Room 1, together with a group of small paintings including a couple of landscapes of Kensington Gardens, is the first appearance of Martin's trademark forked lightning or zigzag thunderbolt, just visible in the background of 'Sadak in Search of the Waters of Oblivion'. …

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