Oct 11

Journey to the Centre of the YIKES — !

FT21 comments • 1,420 views

(crossposted at my tumblr)

Saw the John Martin: Apocalypse show at Tate Britain yesterday. Oddly mixed feelings: not disappointment exactly — I think I childishly wanted the big end-of-the-world canvasses to be three times bigger — but a mild sense of deflation alongside the enormous enjoyment. I don’t mind AMAZING SPECTACLE and I don’t mind ACTUALLY QUITE SILLY, and of course (like lovely progrock) JM is very often both, and the astonished ooh! of phantasmagoria is very often followed by a slightly shamefaced giggle (I expect someone can work this up into a critical “symptom of modernity (in a bad way)”, but I think both responses are good critical practice, to be honest… ). But this is the Tate, and I suppose I did want more of a sense of why and how this more-or-less self-taught Northumberland working-class artisan was caught between Big Public Extravaganzas (the large paintings went on tour, this is how he gathered and entertained his public, alongside a good deal of diligent print-making; mezzotints are the spookiest liminal medium) and urgent unreciprocated interest in social works and social spaces. He drew up meticulous blueprints for improving London’s sewerage system and planned its railway systems — but others got the gigs, perhaps because his projects were considered “unrealistic”. In fact if the show had been called John Martin: London’s Parks it would have been just as accurate, on the numbers, even if less people would be visiting (to be ambushed by unexpected armageddon).

And of course he drew some of the first well known dinosaur pictures, in 1838 and 1840: this was vanguard science, whatever it looks like. I’ve long had an obsession when the first dinosaurs entered literary popular culture — Jules Verne’s A Journey to the Centre of the Earth wasn’t published till 1874 — and this seems like an important clue.


  1. 1

    In the middle piece of the actual real Apocalypse triptych, the one which depicts the bottomless gulf opening up between the nice* and the naughty**, he also carefully paints, off in the gloom, an actual train hurtling off into the abyss, so he was presumably still cross his railway system did not make the cut.

    *lots of tiny portraits of Victorian slebs, plus Shakespeare, Milton etc, not very well captured since he couldn’t actually “do” faces
    **Catholic priests, “moneylenders” (ie Jews), and a whore. I guess he had “issues”, but you don’t paint vast “kill em all let it burn” canvasses unless you’re quite tweaked inside, probably. His brother Jonathan was actually locked up ftb mad — wanted to know more about this — and exhibited a quite hilarious Fall of London, along the same Martin lines, except taking down exactly those that sane brother John said got into heaven. It caused a scandal, and John spent much time and energy protecting and defending Jonathan. Anyway, I ordered the catalogue, so more on this as I find out.

  2. 2
    punctum on 23 Oct 2011 #

    What a good and fortuitous place to link up the next TPL entry.

  3. 3

    Something weird is blocking punctum’s link: try here?

  4. 4
    Bec on 23 Oct 2011 #

    I really want to see this, but even concessions are a bit pricey. Thanks for the review!

  5. 5

    Incidentally the pic at the top is “The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah”

  6. 6
    lonepilgrim on 23 Oct 2011 #

    The same curator, Martin Myrone, organised the ‘Gothic Nightmares’ exhibition at Tate Britain in 2006 and that had some interesting parallels with contemporary culture including one gallery entitled ‘Superheroes’ which appeared to presage Marvel heroes – including Thor and Iron Man – but which also appeared very much of their time with idealised forms and theatrical, compositions.
    Details here:
    What’s compelling about Martin is how he attempts to render fantastic, mythical events with the appearance of verimisilitude – it’s like Victorian CGI compared to the comparatively Harryhausen or (original) Godzilla style of the earlier artists. However, like CGI, there’s something unengaging about the spectacle, which is made more obvious when he introduces human figures.

  7. 7

    maybe relevant also: altdorfer’s the battle of alexander

    ^^^doubleclick to see it big (i had a titanic jigaw puzzle of this as a kid, it took days)

  8. 8
    lonepilgrim on 24 Oct 2011 #

    Yes, the Altdorfer painting shares the God’s eye viewpoint that you find in John Martin’s epic images – a spectacular perspective that shapes the somewhat alienating qualities of the pictures. IIRC, the Altdorfer was a reference for some of the battle scenes in the LOTR movies and shares similar qualities of repeated figures (rendered in paint rather than pixels) that emphasise the artifice.

    Another relevant image is ‘Coalbrookdale by Night’ by P.J. De Loutherbourg. This featured in the Picture of Britain exhibition at Tate Britain in 2005 in a section entitled Heaven and Hell.


    The page linked to above highlights the changes to perceptions of the environment brought by industrialisation and the publication of The Origin of the Species – both of which may have been an influence on Martin’s imagery and the public appetite for them at the time:

  9. 9

    I actually wondered how Martin would have seen the Altdorfer (I mean, maybe he travelled round Europe when young), but this often puzzles me a bit about paintings prior to the age of adequate reproduction — which pretty much emerges when JM’s already established his subject matter.

    Did Jacques-Louis David paint mountains? Wasn’t there a sublime school of mountains and chasms in the 18th century? (The Hudson River people came after Martin I think.)

  10. 10
    koganbot on 24 Oct 2011 #

    Ha! Didn’t realize until your second paragraph that you weren’t talking about a contemporary artist.

    (Yes, I am not up on contemporary art.)

  11. 11
    Mark M on 25 Oct 2011 #

    Re 9: before you even get to the official early Romantics, there was this dude.

  12. 12

    Aha, yes, I was confusing Jacques-Louis David with Caspar-David Friedrich! Surnames, people, surnames…

  13. 13
    Alex S on 25 Oct 2011 #

    If you want more on his mad brother – and the rest of the brood, all q. interesting – then I recommend Max Adams’ The Firebringers, on sale in the exhibition shop (and also elsewhere). Its wider field is less good – and suffers by comparison with Holmes’ magnificent Age of Wonder – but on the Martins specifically, it is pretty good.

  14. 14

    Think I first encountered Martin when “Belshazzar’s Feast” was used to illustrate a passage in a book my mum’s parents had, on the Brontës at Haworth: half a page about the imaginary land and tales of Gondal, which they wrote tiny little books about as kids. I was super-excited by these stories at the time, not least because I also had a children’s book called “The Twelve and the Genii“, which I liked very much.

  15. 15
    anthony on 29 Oct 2011 #

    a) this was around fairy painting, etc–and it always struck me as a
    bit part of that, but i couldnt quite make the difference.
    b) why do they strike me as so american–sort of like the panoramas
    around that time, but also hyper religious in a way that seems less
    british and more you know lds, jw, millerite, etc–huge work b/w
    england and america vis a vis religion, but i wonder about martin’s
    trans-national move…

    (yr totes right about mezzotints)

  16. 16

    Hi Anthony! JMartin’s dates are 1789-1854; Richard Dadd’s — as the key fairypainter? — are 1817-86, which makes him roughly a generation later. For Martin, the age of revolution (political and industrial) is the furniture of his youth, and unfolding cataclysm his mjaor mode; for Dadd — who belongs as a weird adjunct to the pre-raphaelites almost — the furniture is industrialism established and empire co-opting the monumentality of first-wave gothic revival. The state is building its own crags, fountains, foundry-vocanoes: for the sublime, Pre-Raph and second-wave Gothic, manifesting in the Arts and Crafts movement from mid-century-ish, all angrily refusenik against the modern poisoned world, did often escape to a tremulous and perverse reading of the mythological (s yes, crowds of folks, but crowds of tiny, gauze-winged, really quite sinister wee folks). A lot of this was actual official illustrations for children’s books — Richard Doyle not so distant from Dadd, a little later H.J.Ford, margins crawling with creepie beasties — but if kidlit’s a pretext for the subject, it’s only half a mask… so yes.

    Re America: well JM toured America to tremendous success, and the Hudson River Schooled liked what they saw, but I def think there’s a case for suggesting JM was on the borderland of founding a heretical offshoot of xtianity, not maybe in terms of an actual church, but as you say his imagery. Have to think more about this. LDS = VERY gothic, no?

    (ok, so I must go back and do some work on my “gothic” project actually…)

  17. 17
    lonepilgrim on 29 Oct 2011 #

    There was an exhibition at Tate Britain back in 2002 entitled ‘American Sublime: Landscape Painting in the United States 1820-1880’ which featured paintings which are reminiscent of Martin’s use of scale and light. Examples can be seen here:

    FWIW I see Martin’s ‘heresy’ as part of a wider tendency at that time to try to combine ‘mythic’ ‘truth’ of religion with empirical truth of science.

  18. 18

    Fredric Edwyn Church is Hudson River School, pupil of Thomas Cole — and this is good

  19. 19
    anthony on 30 Oct 2011 #

    i think that one of the things that is under written is how much work flowed from america to england and vice versa–esp. the tours of the american west, thinking of wilde, obv, but there is something there

  20. 20

    Dug out the Brontë biog I dimly remembered: turns out that a print of Belshazzar’s Feast hung over the family mantelpiece!

  21. 21
    lonepilgrim on 31 Oct 2011 #

    You are cordially invited to the end of the world…


Add your comment

(Register to guarantee your comments don't get marked as spam.)


Required (Your email address will not be published)

Top of page