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Portrait of John Martin by Henry Warren, 1839

John Martin (19 July 1789 – 17 February, 1854) was an important and influential English Romantic painter of the nineteenth century.



Martin was born at Haydon Bridge, near Hexham in Northumberland. He was apprenticed by his father to a coachbuilder in Newcastle upon Tyne to learn heraldic painting, but owing to a quarrel the indentures were cancelled, and he was placed under Bonifacio Musso, an Italian artist, father of the enamel painter Charles Muss. With his master, Martin removed from Newcastle to London in 1806, where he married at the age of nineteen, and supported himself by giving drawing lessons, and by painting in water colors, and on china and glass. His leisure was occupied in the study of perspective and architecture.

The Seventh Plague of Egypt, engraving after John Martin
The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, 1852.


His first exhibited subject picture, Sadak in Search of the Waters of Oblivion (now in the St. Louis Art Museum), was hung in the Ante-room of the Royal Academy in 1812, and sold for fifty guineas. It was followed by the Expulsion (1813), Paradise (1813), Clytie (1814), and Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still upon Gibeon (1816). In 1821 appeared his Belshazzar's Feast, which excited much favorable and hostile comment, and was awarded a prize of £200 at the British Institution, where the Joshua had previously carried off a premium of £100. Then came the Destruction of Herculaneum (1822), the Creation (1824), the Eve of the Deluge (1841), and a series of other Biblical and imaginative subjects. The Plains of Heaven is thought to reflect his memories of the Allendale of his youth.

Martin's large paintings were inspired by "contemporary dioramas or panoramas, popular entertainments in which large painted cloths were displayed, and animated by the skilful use of artificial light. Martin has often been claimed as a forerunner of the epic cinema, and there is no doubt that the pioneer director D. W. Griffith was aware of his work."[1] In turn, the diorama makers borrowed Martin's work, to the point of plagiarism. A 2,000-square-foot (190 m2) version of Belshazzar's Feast was mounted at a facility called the British Diorama in 1833; Martin tried, but failed, to shut down the display with a court order. Another diorama of the same picture was staged in New York City in 1835. These dioramas were tremendous successes with their audiences, but wounded Martin's reputation in the serious art world.[2] The painting The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, 1852 is currently at the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle upon Tyne.


In addition to being a painter, John Martin was a major mezzotint engraver and for significant periods of his life he earned more from his engravings than his paintings. In 1823, Martin was commissioned by Samuel Prowett, an American publisher, to illustrate John Milton's Paradise Lost, for which he was paid 2000 pounds. However, before the first 24 engravings were completed he was paid a further 1500 pounds for a second set of 24 engravings on smaller plates. Two of the more notable prints include Pandæmonium and Satan Presiding at the Infernal Council, remarkable for the science fiction element visible in the depicted architecture. Prowett issued 4 separate editions of the engravings in monthly installments, the first appearing on 20 March 1825 and the last in 1827. Later, inspired by Prowett’s venture, between 1831 and 1835 Martin published his own illustrations to the Old Testament but the project was a serious drain on his resources and not very profitable. He sold his remaining stock to Charles Tilt who republished them in a folio album in 1838 and in a smaller format in 1839.


Martin enjoyed immense popularity and a print of Belshazzar's Feast hung on the parlour wall of the Brontë vicarage in Haworth, where Charlotte and Branwell copied Martin's works. Martin's fantasy architecture influenced the Glasstown and Angria of the Bronte juvenilia, where he himself appears as Edward de Lisle of Verdopolis. His profile was raised even further in February 1829 when his older brother, non-conformist Jonathan Martin deliberately set fire to York Minster. The fire caused extensive damage and the scene was likened by an onlooker to John's work, oblivious to the fact that it had more to do with him than it initially seemed. Jonathan Martin's defence at his trial was paid for with John's money. His older brother, known as "Mad Martin", was ultimately found guilty but was spared the hangman's noose on the grounds of insanity.

He was also occupied with schemes for the improvement of London, and published various pamphlets and plans dealing with the metropolitan water supply, sewerage, dock and railway systems. His 1834 plans for London's sewerage system anticipated by some 25 years the 1859 proposals of Joseph Bazalgette to create intercepting sewers complete with walkways along both banks of the River Thames.

During the last four years of his life Martin was engaged upon a triptych of very large biblical subjects: The Last Judgment, The Great Day of His Wrath, and The Plains of Heaven, of which the latter two were bequeathed to Tate Britain in 1974. Martin suffered an attack of paralysis while painting and died on the Isle of Man.

Like some other popular artists, Martin fell victim to changes in fashion and public taste. His "grandiose visions seemed theatrical and outmoded to the mid-Victorians, and Martin died both neglected and forgotten."[3] "Few artists have been subject to such posthumous extremes of critical fortune, for in the 1930s his vast paintings fetched only a pound or two, while today they are valued at many thousands."[2]

Popular Culture

His painting of "The Fallen Angels Entering Pandemonium" was used as the cover art of the NWOBHM band Angel Witch for their self titled debut album.

"The Great Day of His Wrath" is used on the cover of Lustmord's iconic Album, "Heresy".


With his wife Susan, Martin had five children: Alfred (who became an engineer), Isabella, Zenobia (who married the artist Peter Cunningham), Leopold (who became a clerk), and Jessie (who married egyptologist Joseph Bonomi).

See also


  1. ^ Wood, p. 19.
  2. ^ a b Lambourne, p. 160.
  3. ^ Wood, p. 20.


This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.

  • Adams, Max. The Firebringers: Art, science and the struggle for Liberty in 19th century Britain. London, Quercus, 2009. ISBN 9781847248695
  • Johnstone, Christopher. John Martin. London, Academy Editions, 1974. ISBN 0856701750
  • Hall, Marshall. The Artists of Northumbria. Bristol, Art Dictionaries, 2005. ISBN 0953260992
  • Lambourne, Lionel. Victorian Painting. London, Phaidon Press, 1999.
  • Wood, Christopher. Victorian Painting. Boston, Little, Brown & Co., 1999. ISBN 0821223267

External links



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