John Martin fuels Great British Art Debate with Painting the Apocalypse at Millennium Gallery

By Culture24 Reporter | 18 August 2011
An image of an oil painting showing an epic biblical scene
John Martin, Belshazzar's Feast (1820)© Courtesy Yale Center for British Art
Exhibition: John Martin – Painting the Apocalypse, Millennium Gallery, Sheffield, until September 4 2011

Chess master, architect, marine engineer and networker, John Martin was nothing if not ambitious. “I will bring before the eye the vast and magnificent edifices of the ancient world,” he is widely quoted as declaring, by way of humble mission statement for his monumental canvasses.

“By freely employing the aid of its powerful and primitive elements of fire and water, agitated by their almight disposer to set roaring war between the green sea and the azure vault.”

Those lofty sentiments make for ringing aural accompaniments to the works of a painter whose trademark was sheer drama. Many of them are biblical visions which left an intended trail of awe in the early 19th century – one of his most celebrated paintings, Belshazzar’s Feast, hung in the Bronte’s house in Haworth, and others, such as The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, threw fire and brimstone into an apocalyptic cauldron which has influenced filmmakers such as Ray Harryhausen.

Born in Northumberland, Martin had a reckless yet brave spirit which extended to social reformation and nearly brought about his financial ruin on numerous occasions. He achieved fame in London and popularity among the great and the good of the time, but was also slated by many of his peers (Ruskin famously derided his “false magnitude”, and by the 1930s his pieces were selling for negligible prices.)

All of which makes Painting the Apocalypse a prime candidate for The Great British art Debate, the collaborative revolving exhibition collaboration between Tate Britain and venues in Norfolk, Tyne and Wear and Sheffield.

The first major display of Martin’s works for more than 30 years borrows pieces from all over the place and finds space for film screenings in the gallery illustrating how his paintings have influenced cinema. Co-curated by Tate and the Laing, the show won praise for its layout when it debuted at the Newcastle gallery earlier this year.

More pictures from the show:

An image of a painting of a stormy sea against a creeping coast
The Plains of Heaven (1851)© Tate, London, 2011
An image of a painting of a volcanic rural setting
The Great Day of His Wrath (1851-3)
© Tate, London, 2011
An image of a painting of fire and lightning over a rural scene
The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (1852)© Courtesy Laing Art Gallery
An image of an oil painting of a rural biblical scene
The Last Judgement (1853)© Tate, London, 2011
More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned:
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