Painted Stories in Britain 11: John Martin

John Martin, The Great Day of his Wrath (1851-3), oil on canvas, 196.5 x 303.2 cm, The Tate Gallery, London. Wikimedia Commons.

William Hogarth and William Blake came to painting from engraving and print-making. John Martin (1789–1854), a friend and contemporary of JMW Turner, didn’t train at the Royal Academy Schools, nor as an engraver, but was successively apprenticed as a decorative painter of carriages, then of china and glass. When he moved with his master from the north-east of England to London, he developed his painting technique to the point where he was teaching others.

Despite his lack of formal training, he submitted his first painting to the Royal Academy in 1810, but wasn’t successful there until the following year.

John Martin (1789–1854), Sadak in Search of the Waters of Oblivion (1812), oil on canvas, 76.2 × 63.5 cm, Art Gallery, St. Louis, MO. Wikimedia Commons.

Martin’s break came with Sadak in Search of the Waters of Oblivion in 1812.

The story of Sadak (perhaps derived from Zadok) has now been almost forgotten, but from its publication in James Ridley’s Tales of the Genii in 1764, it enjoyed sustained popularity. Pretending to be from a Persian original, it was orientalist fiction. Sultan Amurath sends the hero Sadak on a mission to locate the waters of Oblivion, which are claimed to destroy memory. This mission takes him through all manner of natural and supernatural challenges before Sadak reaches his goal. The Sultan tries to use the waters on Sadak’s wife to seduce her, but in the end he falls victim to them, and dies. Sadak then becomes Sultan himself.

Martin shows Sadak struggling up huge boulders in the foreground, as he nears the waters of his quest. The painting already has the apocalyptic appearance that became so characteristic of many of his works. This was exhibited at the Royal Academy in London, where it was largely ignored, but afterwards it was bought by a former Governor of the Bank of England, who became Martin’s first patron.

John Martin (1789–1854), Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still (c 1840), oil on canvas, 47.9 x 108.3 cm, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT. Wikimedia Commons.

Four years later, in 1816, he was even more successful with Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still, of which this is a later half-size copy he made in about 1840.

During his conquest of Canaan for the land of the Israelites, Joshua their leader brought his army to fight the Canaanites at Gibeon. To maintain daylight, and allow the battle to continue, Joshua called upon God to cause the sun and moon to stand still. This he did, and called up a storm of heavy rain and hailstones to further hamper the Canaanites. As a result of this divine intervention, Joshua led the Israelites to victory.

Joshua is seen on a rock platform just below the centre of the painting, the armies stretching from the gates of the city at the right, all the way down into the valley at the left. The storm rages on the Canaanites in the valley below, while the clouds have parted over the Israelites to the right. It’s unusual for the changing weather to play such a central role in narrative.

Two years later, his Fall of Babylon brought him financial security at last.

John Martin (1789–1854), Macbeth (1820), oil on canvas, 86 x 65.1 cm, Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh, Scotland. Wikimedia Commons.

In 1820, Martin turned to William Shakespeare’s tragedy of Macbeth, and painted the famous scene in which the three witches meet with Macbeth and Banquo on a “heath”. Here the witches materialise from a swirl of mist and lightning bolts on the left, and Macbeth and Banquo appear surprised at their sudden arrival. Winding around the shores of the distant lake is the huge army, and Martin has turned the Scottish Highlands into rugged Alpine scenery of the Burkean sublime, an indication of the much greater outcome of this meeting.

John Martin (1789–1854), Belshazzar’s Feast (1820), oil on canvas, 90.2 x 130.2 cm, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT. Wikimedia Commons.

In the same year, Martin painted Belshazzar’s Feast (1820), his greatest success, and part of a challenge posed by his friend, the American artist Washington Allston. The version shown here is half-sized; the original was offered to the National Gallery but was declined because it was too large.

Martin shows the grandeur of a thousand lords feasting in vast open-roofed halls. Above them are the famous Hanging Gardens of Babylon, with the Tower of Babel in the distance, and a ziggurat slightly closer. The writing on the wall burns bright at the far left, its characters carefully made illegible in this version. The Top Tables are in the foreground, Daniel standing prominent in a black cloak explaining the meaning of the words. Belshazzar and his royal entourage are recoiling in shock around his throne at the far right.

John Martin (1789-1854), Pandemonium (1823-27), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Image by Jean-Pierre Dalbéra, via Wikimedia Commons.

His Pandemonium, from 1823-27, shows Hell not as the place for a tormented afterlife, but as the kingdom of Satan, who stands like a Roman legionnaire rallying his demon forces as they assemble on cinders floating on a river of lava. This refers to John Milton’s Paradise Lost, which Martin illustrated with mezzotint engravings over this period, a commission which earned him the fabulous sum of 3,500 guineas (£3,675).

John Martin (1789–1854), Alpheus and Arethusa (1832), oil, dimensions and location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Martin’s Alpheus and Arethusa (1832) is a powerful work in which the story, taken from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, is depicted in figures so tiny that they could easily be overlooked, were it not for the pale pink flesh of Arethusa. She is here being pursued by Alpheus before being transformed into a stream.

Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665), Landscape with Diogenes (1648), oil on canvas, 160 × 221 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Diogenes of Sinope (alias the Cynic) (412/404-323 BCE) was a major and controversial Greek philosopher. Despite his cynicism, he was logically very consistent by nature. One story tells of discovery of a young man drinking from his cupped hands. Seeing this, Diogenes threw his cup away, uttering the words “a child has beaten me in plainness of living.” This scene was shown by Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665) in his Landscape with Diogenes (1648), the inspiration for Martin’s version.

John Martin (1789–1854), Diogenes Throwing Away His Cup (1833), watercolour with scratching out, heightened with touches of gum arabic, 19.5 x 26 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Martin’s fine watercolour of Diogenes Throwing Away His Cup from 1833 changes the setting, using an imagined version of ancient Athens with the Parthenon dominating the distant buildings. With rolling hills, lakes, and more woodland than shown by Poussin, the slight mist exaggerates the aerial perspective. In the foreground are Diogenes and the young man, arranged similarly to those in Poussin’s painting, but relatively smaller in the landscape.

John Martin (1789–1854), The Deluge (1834), oil on canvas, 168.3 x 258.4 cm, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT. Wikimedia Commons.

Martin’s painting of The Deluge from the following year has two points of reference: the biblical account of the flood, in Genesis, in which God punishes human wickedness by destroying all life on earth except the few people and menagerie in Noah’s Ark, and Martin’s personal belief in prior catastrophe.

As the sciences became ascendant during the nineteenth century, some educated people believed that in the past there had been an alignment of the sun, earth, and moon, and the collision of a comet, which had resulted in global flooding. This was promoted by the French natural scientist Baron Georges Cuvier, and subscribed to by Martin.

True to form, his painting is dark and apocalyptic: near the centre, tiny survivors are just about to be overwhelmed by an immense wave, which bears down at them from the left and above. The misaligned sun and moon barely penetrate the dense cloud, and to the top right is a melée of rock avalanche and lightning bolt. This was awarded a gold medal at the Paris Salon of 1835.

John Martin (1789–1854), Manfred and the Alpine Witch (1837), watercolour, 38.8 x 55.8 cm, Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester, England. Wikimedia Commons.

Lord Byron’s Manfred: A Dramatic Poem was written in 1816-7 following his ostracisation over alleged incest with his half-sister. Its hero Manfred is tortured by guilt in relation to the death of his beloved Astarte. Living in the Bernese Alps, he casts spells to summon seven spirits to help him forget and sublimate his guilt. As the spirits cannot control past events, he does not achieve his aim, and cannot even escape by suicide. In the end, he dies.

Martin’s watercolour of Manfred and the Alpine Witch (1837) shows Manfred conjuring a witch from a flooded cave in the mountains. Unusually light and sublime but not apocalyptic, it is perhaps one of his most beautiful works, and reminiscent of Turner’s alpine paintings.

Tyre was the great Phoenician port on the Mediterranean coast, claimed to have been the origin of navigation and sea trade. Its importance and the generally good nature of its merchants and other citizens allowed it to be spared destruction for a long time. However, the prophet Ezekiel (chapter 26) fortold that one day, many nations would come against Tyre, would put the city under siege, break her walls down, that the fabric of the city would be cast into the sea, and it would never be rebuilt. This is fertile territory for Martin’s talents.

Nebuchadnezzar put Tyre under siege in 573 BCE, and eventually Alexander the Great destroyed the city in 332 BCE.

John Martin (1789–1854), The Destruction of Tyre (1840), oil on canvas, 83.8 x 109.5 cm, Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, OH. Wikimedia Commons.

In The Destruction of Tyre (1840) Martin brings the forces of nature in to help destroy the port, with a storm great enough to sink many vessels, leaving their prows floating like sea monsters. In the distance is his signature lightning bolt, and the city has clearly been broken down to fragments of masonry.

The destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah has become so deeply embedded in western culture that Sodom has entered several European languages. The events are told in Genesis, which places the two among five cities on the plain just north of the Dead Sea, on the River Jordan. Because of their grievous sin, God determined that the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah would be destroyed.

One family living righteously in Sodom at the time was Abraham’s nephew Lot; following negotiation, God agreed that he would spare the lives of Lot and his family, so they were visited by angels, who told Lot to gather his family and leave, but not to look back. As Sodom and Gomorrah were being destroyed “by fire and brimstone”, Lot’s wife looked back and was turned into a pillar of salt.

John Martin (1789–1854), The Destruction Of Sodom And Gomorrah (1852), oil on canvas, 136.3 x 212.3 cm, Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne, England. Wikimedia Commons.

Martin’s huge storm of fire and brimstone shows The Destruction Of Sodom And Gomorrah (1852) as if in the heart of a furnace from an ironworks of the day. Lot and his two daughters are seen in the right foreground, walking away and not looking back. In the middle distance, Lot’s wife is straggling behind, looking back, and is just about to the struck by a lightning bolt which will turn her into a pillar of salt. This is Martin at his most awe-inspiring.

At the same time that he was painting The Destruction Of Sodom And Gomorrah, Martin was working on his huge final canvas in the triptych of The Last Judgement, titled The Great Day of his Wrath (1851-3).

John Martin, The Great Day of his Wrath (1851-3), oil on canvas, 196.5 x 303.2 cm, The Tate Gallery, London. Wikimedia Commons.
John Martin (1789–1854), The Great Day of his Wrath (1851-3), oil on canvas, 196.5 x 303.2 cm, The Tate Gallery, London. Wikimedia Commons.

Here he tackles what should be a major narrative challenge: depicting the future in a painting, a medium without time or tenses. In practice, its placement in time is almost irrelevant, as it revels in the sublime and awe-inspiring, as Martin’s final vision of the apocalypse.

John Martin suffered a stroke later in 1853, and died early the following year.

Martin was a highly unconventional narrative painter, whose paintings inspired awe on a cosmic scale. They also inspired other artists, including Thomas Cole, and to a certain extent some of the Pre-Raphaelites. I also suspect that Turner himself may have noticed Martin’s swirling cloud vortices, seen in many of Turner’s later works.

Martin is sometimes accused of being a backward Romantic, rather than the product of the Age of Enlightenment and the development of the sciences. At the time, theories such as Cuvier’s explanation of the Flood were considered to be progressive and scientific. Martin also spent a lot of his life involved in inventions and early technology. After several years of work, in 1834 he proposed a new sewer system for London, anticipating that of Joseph Bazalgette twenty-five years later, which resulted in the construction of the Thames embankments, and many of the sewers that still serve the city. Among Martin’s friends was Charles Wheatstone, a polymath professor of physics involved with telegraphy, inventor of the concertina and stereoscope, and one of many who tried to measure the speed of light.



Morden BC (2010) John Martin. Apocalypse Now! McNidder & Grace. ISBN 978 1 90479 499 8.