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The Firebringers, By Max Adams

If Shelley was the 'prophet of Prometheanism', then the romantic painter John Martin was its high priest

John Martin "single-handedly invented, mastered and exhausted an entire genre of painting, the Apocalyptic Sublime". The fantastic architecture of his cityscapes anticipated the worlds of science fiction and inspired early cinematic set design. Above them, bolts of lightning – "a John Martin trademark" – deliver divine judgment and "put an essential seal of sublimity on his paintings".

Martin was the youngest of 13 children – of whom five survived childhood – in an ordinary, provincial family, and was born the same week that the Bastille fell. He was never admitted to the Royal Academy, yet became one of the most popular artists of his day. Max Adams' The Firebringers: Art, Science and the Struggle for Liberty in 19th-Century Britain interweaves Martin's remarkable story with those of his brothers and contemporaries. His fascination with fiery apocalypse was shared by his brother, Jonathan, who believed he was called by God to act out the divine vengeance that John Martin specialised in painting. On 1 February 1829, Jonathan hid himself in York Minster after it had been locked up for the night, draped himself in velvet curtains torn down from the archbishop's throne, set light to two piles of prayer books and then abseiled out. The fire destroyed the organ, choir stalls, pulpit, bishop's throne and many other parts of the 14th-century oak interior; the arsonist was arrested five days later, miles away in the Tyne valley.

His brother William, a self-proclaimed debunker of Newtonian mechanics, took a sympathetic view of Jonathan's actions, celebrating the event in doggerel. More practically, John and Richard Martin, a veteran of Waterloo, arranged for Henry Brougham to conduct the defence. Brougham successfully argued that the defendant was insane and Jonathan spent the rest of his life in Bedlam, where he was allowed paper and ink to make apocalyptic sketches of Babylon-on-Thames.

Max Adams portrays the Martins as part of a generation of artists and scientists inspired by the myth of Prometheus, the Greek Titan who stole fire from Zeus to give to man. Many of these fearless radicals and innovators collected at John Martin's Marylebone home, where the stellar guest list included Faraday, Dickens, the Brunels, Robert Owen, JMW Turner, William Godwin, Caroline Norton and Charles Wheatstone.

However, The Firebringers is undone by its scope, which extends beyond Martin's Marylebone set to include every passing luminary. This leads to some bizarre summary judgements: we are told that Mary Wollstonecraft was "passionate but undisciplined" and Percy Shelley "England's great white hope". Adams' definition of the Promethean is baggy enough to include almost anyone, yet he admits that "no written document survives to prove that John Martin was a devotee of Prometheus" and struggles to align Martin and Shelley, respectively "high priest" and "prophet" of Prometheanism. Writing about Martin's Sadak in Search of the Waters of Oblivion (1812), he concedes that Martin "had not perhaps, at this time, yet met Godwin and through him Shelley", and then that he "may in fact never have met Shelley". Martin only met Godwin in 1830, eight years after Shelley's death, and there is no evidence that Shelley and Martin ever met.

If The Firebringers fails as a portrait of an entire age, it succeeds brilliantly as a biography of a family and place. John Martin was born in Haydon Bridge and Adams describes him drawing in the silt of the Tyne with a stick and pays attention to the "unmistakably Northumbrian" light of an early painting. The region was at the centre of scientific advance, and in 1825, George Stephenson's Locomotion No. 1 opened the Stockton and Darlington railway line, putting Tyneside at "the forefront of industrial progress". Writing of an age before rigid disciplinary boundaries, Adams illuminates the links between a generation of artistic and scientific visionaries.

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