John Martin, The Bard, c1817
As the Tate Britain exhibition John Martin: Apocalypse comes to the end of its run, it would be interesting to know how well it has done. There was talk beforehand of the way that Martin's critical reputation has risen and that his spectacular paintings should appeal in a world of 'proliferating IMAX cinemas and giant plasmas' (Ian Christie in Tate Etc. magazine) and contemporary photography framed on a Sublime scale - Edward Burtynsky, Florian Maier-Aichen, Andreas Gursky (Jonathan Griffin also in Tate Etc.) The Tate's familiar Last Judgement Triptych was accompanied by a new 'theatrical display' intended to evoke the way these paintings were seen around the world in the late nineteenth century. Looking round the exhibition I found it easy to see why John Martin's work has been mocked - "huge, queer and tawdry" was the verdict of William Makepeace Thackeray.
Martin's shortcomings are more evident when you see the paintings up close: The Bard for example often gets reproduced in books about Romanticism but I'd not previously been able to see how unconvincing some of its details are - Edward I's army a line of little tin soldiers trailing all the way back to the castle gate. Yet there's still something awesome about these blockbuster paintings (at least that's what the adolescent Chris Foss fan I used to be was telling me) and the exhibition was also fascinating for the way it highlighted Martin's less well known activities - as a decorator of plates, an illustrator of prehistoric creatures (Gideon Mantell's The Wonders of Geology) and a painter of modest topographical water colours, like some views of Richmond Park where, like Edmund Spenser in Ireland, he had an oak tree named after him (how many writers and artists are commemorated in this way I wonder?)
Perhaps the most surprising exhibits were two examples of his schemes to improve the city of London. The first, which might have been drawn by a 1970s land artist or a 1990s psychogeographer, was his plan for a London Connecting Railway - a beautiful curving form superimposed on a map, like the outline of an octopus. The other was a drawing of a sewer housed in a new Thames embankment, stretching from 'the Ranelagh Outlet to the Engine Station': a proposal considered seriously at the time but easy to view as one more facet of Martin's capacity to dream up imaginary cities. (It made me think of today's urban explorers, uncovering tunnels like these and scaling buildings to view the city below from a John Martin perspective.) An excellent article in The Guardian by the John Martin expert William Feaver mentions these engineering projects and claims that Martin 'was ecologically prophetic. In his 1833 A Plan for Improving the Air and Water of the Metropolis he raised an issue such as had been dismissed by the scoffers who ignored divine warnings and were swept away in Noah's flood: "Is it not probable that a too ignorant waste of manure has caused the richest and most fertile countries such as Egypt, Assyria, the Holy Land, the South of Italy etc to become barren as they now are?"'
John Martin, Pandemonium, 1841