End of the world visions

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John Martin was a 19th-century sensation, adored by the public and royalty. Now he is largely forgotten. Tate Britain's exhibition of his apocalyptic work suggests it's time to reassess him, says Arifa Akbar

The public clambered to see John Martin's paintings in his lifetime. Such was his popularity that his canvases would be exhibited not only in galleries but also in music halls and theatres, which could fit far bigger crowds. Stretching 12ft long and featuring earth-shattering apocalyptic scenes in swirls of vermilion and amber, they never disappointed, drawing shivers and gasps from 19th-century audiences.

So how did Martin, a working-class northerner, rise from rank poverty to befriend Prince Albert and become the biggest mass-market artist of his time? And why did the establishment scorn his achievements?

Tate Britain hopes to answer some of the questions around Martin's legacy, in an exhibition, John Martin: Apocalypse, opening on 21 September, as well as solving the enigma of why he is so little remembered today.

Born in 1789 in a one-room family cottage in Northumberland, Martin began as a coach painter. When he later moved to London and turned to imaginative artwork, he did so in monumental style, creating immense canvases filled with fantasy Armageddons and biblical catastrophes. People responded in their hordes: one work was viewed by a third of the British population. Another had to be put behind a cordon to prevent damage from pressing crowds. The work was a hit when taken overseas on tour to New York and Australia.

His popular image was less as an artist and more as a visionary whose work could be found on the walls of European royalty, Russian emperors and even the Brontë parsonage.

Victorian Britain had seen nothing like it, but the art elite was not amused and he was dismissed as a pretender. Martin Myrone, chief curator of the Tate Britain exhibition, said his paintings were judged to be too unsophisticated, "playing to the cheap seats" with their showmanship.

"When you read the criticism of his day, one of the things you pick up on is the judgement that with paintings popular with the ordinary man, the painter who made them could not be any good."

In that vein, William Thackeray called Martin's work "huge, queer and tawdry to our eyes, but very much admired by the public". Wordsworth and Coleridge sniped about him in letters to each other and John Ruskin, his harshest critic, condemned his work as "mere manufacture, as much makeable to order as a tea-tray or a coal-scuttle", while the Royal Academy refused him entry. Yet today's art historians agree that this criticism revealed the innate snobbery of the establishment, and not Martin's failings.

He argued publicly with the RA, and might have smarted from his exclusion from "high art", but at least he could console himself with the large fortune he made from his stratospheric public popularity.

What also distinguished him from his contemporaries, aside from the audacious aesthetic style, was his sharp commercial sense and his grasp of the worth of the reproduced images. It meant that he used new print technology to reproduce originals at a rapid rate, and sent them across the world to be sold to his fans. This made him a prototype Warholian figure who incorporated technology and commerce into his practice. Much like Andy Warhol, he earned his fortune by such clever reproduction, as well as a glittering circle of friends (Charles Dickens counted among them, as did King Leopold of Belgium).

Penelope Curtis, director of Tate Britain, cites an enduring prejudice for his exclusion from his contemporary canon in the opening pages of the gallery's accompanying catalogue of the show. She writes: "By highlighting Martin's ability to use the available means of dissemination, including popular print-making and touring exhibitions outside the capital and beyond the purview of the Royal Academy, the present exhibition brings us closer to the art politics of the time and asks us to examine to what extent Martin's uncertain foothold in our historic canon is the result of a prejudice – historic and actual – that favours high art and less showy show." Our post YBA-era is an apt time to reassess artistic showmanship, given the increasingly spectacular nature of art today, she suggests.

Given the larger history of the period, Martin summed up the collective anxieties of the age. The end-of-the-world subject matter tapped into the dreams, nightmares and fantasies of the day: the French Revolution was still fresh in people's minds, and with it, the free-floating fear of the destabilisation of other ancient European regimes.

Britain was a global empire and it was, in many people's eyes, like ancient Babylon. It had the power and the luxury but also the vulnerability of a great empire to crumble. Among his most seminal works is Belshazzar's Feast, featuring the biblical story of the fall of Babylon and King Belshazzar being warned of the downfall of his city by luminous writing on the wall.

"The public had never seen a painting like that before. It was a vast panoramic spectacle. He was a master of sublime pictoral effects, someone who created visual spectacles, with an emphasis on architectural setting," says Myrone. The painting is 9ft across and he wanted to create the perspective of a mile-long palace in it.

Another central work in his oeuvre was produced late in his career. The Great Day of his Wrath was part of a "last judgement" triptych and featured the image of the end of the world, with cities falling in on themselves, created with an extraordinary breadth of conception.

"The sense of scale was overwhelming. There were reports of how many people came to see it. It was the first painting that needed a barrier around it. What's interesting is that many people looked at it not as an artwork but as a vision of biblical truth," says Myrone.

Martin's was also an era which saw a massive expansion of art with larger audiences than ever before. "New print technology reached very large, international audiences," says Myrone, "and he was among the first to exploit it through the circulation of prints. And the key thing about replication was once he had made a picture, he would exhibit it not once but a number of times."

Others also began reprinting his images and he became infuriated by the piracy, and holes in copyright law, going to court several times when he saw his images illegally replicated.

As well as this, he painted different versions of the same scene repeatedly over his career, for example, his painting Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still was first completed and displayed in 1816, and then Martin returned to paint it again in 1849. This habit gave his critics yet more fodder, and they accused him of having a dearth of new ideas.

It was not just his work but also his personal appearance and persona that was flamboyant. It is clear he was a social climber as a young man, striking up a friendship with Prince Leopold of Belgium (who would later become king) while sharing digs in Marylebone. With the reputation of a fixer – it was Leopold who introduced Queen Victoria to Prince Albert – Martin may have known he would prove to be very useful for his career. He did little to hide this side of himself. He was proud of his connections to high society, and created a special cabinet for all his medals, given to him by the likes of Louis-Philippe of France, the Emperor of Russia and Victoria herself. "We also found that in the hallway of his house in Chelsea there were busts of Queen Victoria, King Leopold and himself," says Myrone. "He wanted people to know he had real connections and despite his popular image as a visionary eccentric, he was athletic and oiled his hair, someone who wanted people to know that he fitted in to high society."

His creative influence in his lifetime, though substantial, especially on writers such as the Brontës (who copied some of his fantasy paintings) and Dickens, has grown since his death. Fantasy writers such as H P Lovecraft, who wrote a long letter of admiration, and more recently, China Mieville and Alan Moore, have spoken of the importance of his work. His influence on these writers is particularly marked in a composition such as Sadak in Search of Waters of Oblivion, a striking 6ft-high, volcanic landscape with a tiny figure struggling onto a rock. This was painted in 1812 – early on in his career – but it anticipates the modern fantasy genre, resembling a cinematic shot or a clip from Star Trek. In this sense, he was a visionary indeed.

John Martin: Apocalypse, Tate Britain, London SW1 (020 7887 8888) 21 September to 15 January

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