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Martin, John

Entry updated 10 October 2022. Tagged: Artist.

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(1789-1854) UK painter and illustrator with a spectacularly melodramatic imagination, whose vast canvases depicting cataclysmic biblical scenes of Disaster and the End of the World have informed much modern fantasy Illustration. Even his delicate mezzotint illustrations for such editions as Paradise Lost (1824) by John Milton (1608-1674) have an epic quality; his variously published prints and engravings at times convey an apocalyptic gravitas that the full-scale paintings, with their sometimes insensitive palettes, may obliterate. His paintings typically feature multitudes of tiny figures and fantastic architecture under turbulent skies; Ray Harryhausen acknowledged Martin's influence on his films. He was the younger brother of the mentally disturbed Jonathan Martin (1782-1838), known as "mad Martin", who after setting fire to York Minster in 1829 was imprisoned in London's Bethlem Royal Hospital until his death.

Martin was born of poor parents in Northumberland and apprenticed to a coachbuilder in Newcastle, learning to paint heraldic devices on the vehicles' side panels. Released from his indentures, he finally settled in London, exhibiting at the Royal Academy from 1811. The paintings that made him famous were doom-laden Old Testament catastrophes such as "Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still" (1816), "The Fall of Babylon" (1819) and "The Deluge" (1826). But despite the great popularity of his illustrations for Milton and the Bible, Martin's career faltered for a time, though it revived when he painted "The Coronation of Queen Victoria" (1839). His final major accomplishment, the Last Judgement Triptych, remains a significant contribution to the growing palette of Fantastika. The first painting, "The Last Judgement" (1851), may represent his most vivid use of the still newfangled train, connecting a Pandaemonium-bound railway (see Transportation) – with each carriage given the name of a doomed City – to the moment when the End of the World is nigh. The second painting, "The Plains of Heaven" (circa 1853) – along with earlier works like "The Assuaging of the Waters" (1840) or "Solitude" (1843) – may taken to represent the first works of landscape art to hint, even tentatively, at the curvature of the planet. The final painting, "The Great Day of His Wrath" (circa 1853), more traditionally depicts the gates of Hell as a gaping hollow or maw in the Earth.

After his death Martin's reputation declined again, but by the late twentieth century had risen once more, though in the intervening years much of his work had been lost. A major retrospective exhibition, "John Martin – Apocalypse", was held at Tate Britain 2011-2012. [RT/DRL/JC]

see also: John Harris.

John Martin

born Haydon Bridge, Northumberland: 19 July 1789

died Isle of Man: 17 February 1854

about the artist


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