Andrew Lambirth

Sensation seeker

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.

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