Since it opened in late September, Tate Britain’s John Martin: Apocalypse has been attracting reviews as spectacular as the paintings themselves: talk of astonishment, the epic and the theatrical has been fairly standard. And although some of this excitement might be attributed to the rarity of the occasion – this is the first time in thirty years that Martin’s work has been the subject of such a sizeable exhibition – it really is a dramatic collection, and one that’s well worth a visit. Martin’s work has a sense of scale and of the grandiose that really do make it, well, awe-inspiring.
As the title suggests, the work of this English Romantic, born in 1793 in Northumberland, concentrates on disaster, destruction and apocalypse, mostly of the biblical kind. Intense and powerful evocations of the might and wrath of God, conveyed through scenes of judgement, fire and devastation are all common features of his work. There are elements of the mysterious, and of the fantastical. Landscapes are rugged, mountains towering and vast in scale, cities in the midst of collapse, skies dark with gathered cloud or bright with fire.
Martin enjoyed huge popularity during his lifetime, with pieces like Sadak in Search of the Waters of Oblivion (1812), The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (1852), and Belshazzar’s Feast (1821), a print of which hung in the Brontës’s Haworth parsonage. His work is recognised as an influence upon their writing. Sadak is recognised as one of the key pieces of the period. Such was the reputation of his work that when his eldest brother Jonathan (who would later in life be confined to a lunatic asylum) set fire to York Mister in 1829, it was said that the scene was not unlike that of one of his paintings.
One of his most famous works, The Great Day of His Wrath (1851-1853), depicts the ultimate destruction of Babylon and was one of three large scale canvases dedicated to biblical scenes, completed before his death in 1854. Although this particular work was given to the Tate in the late 19th century, many of the pieces in the current exhibition have been gathered from collections around the world, to which have been added some that have been recently restored, and even some for which this is their first outing.
This renewed interest in Martin’s work represents a critical reception which has gone full circle; despite his popularity in his own time, the Victorians felt his work to be overwrought and less than tasteful, and within a few decades of his death he had been largely forgotten. However, his influence has persisted, and can be seen in the work of a wide range of other artists, from the afore mentioned Brontës to Heavy Metal band Iron Maiden’s sleeve art, and a host of film directors in between.
John Martin: Apocalypse runs at Tate Britain until January 15th 2012, and admission is £12.50 / £10 (concession). The exhibition is now open until 22.00 every Friday.