(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.