Martin, John (1789-1854)

Martin, John (1789-1854)
Martin, John (1789-1854)

British artist John Martin is known for his fantastical, epic paintings which strike a strange surge of terror and amazement in the viewer’s mind.

Often featuring religious subjects or emphasising the relationship between nature and humanity, Martin’s works saw him greatly celebrated in his day. Indeed, today he is considered one of the leading romantic artists, whose evocations of the ‘sublime’ are second to none, terrifying, majestic.

Born into poverty, Martin’s painting prospects began as the apprentice of a coach-painter. However, a dispute over wages meant Martin soon left this employment. He instead turned to Italian artist Boniface Musso and his son, enamel painter Charles Muss. Martin began supporting himself by working at their firm, painting enamel and china by day. By night, however, his attention turned to the study of architecture and perspective. By his own account, he would stay up ‘till two and three o’clock in the morning’ to practise. Such a sacrifice of sleep would pay off in time, as we shall see.

Martin began to submit works to the Royal Academy in the early 1810s. The first of these were landscapes, however, Martin also began to exhibit far more fantastical scenes. ‘Sadak in Search of the Waters of Oblivion’ (1812) is the first work which presents nature as an awe-defying, terror-inducing phenomena against which humanity is cast as fragile, and insignificant. Such a work was a gamble, both artistically and personally. Martin was married and therefore had a duty to support his family. If he were to continue to find artistic fulfilment and provide for his loved ones, the work had to sell.

Fortunately, it did! In his own words, Martin emphasises the relief and joy this first sale brought: ‘I remember the inexpressible delight my wife and I experienced.’ Not only that, but Martin had encouragement from Royal Academy President, Benjamin West (1738-1820).

As the years progressed, Martin continued to exhibit, and his reputation continued to grow. The culmination of his efforts came in 1821, with the presentation of his work ‘Belshazzar's Feast.’ Inspired by a poem by T.S. Hughes based on biblical scripture, this work displays nature as the apocalyptic conjuring of divine power.

Terror rains down on the Babylonian King Belshazzar at his feast. People cower and run in panic as their doom befalls them from the sky. Martin combines his studies of architecture and perspective with his dramatic interpretation of nature to present a work both realistic and fantastical, both relatable and inconceivable.

‘Belshazzar's Feast’ was viewed by more than 4,000 people and cemented Martin’s reputation as ‘the most popular painter of the day.’ He continued to produce works on this fantastical, epic scale. Most were inspired by the Bible or by literature such as the works of Shakespeare, yet his visions of nature were adapted from real-life scenes. The hellish crucible of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah was based on the ironworks in the Tyne Valley. The glorious, divine view of ‘The Plains of Heaven’ (1851) is said to have been inspired by his childhood in Allendale.

Martin’s works contributed to the growing trend for Romanticism very popular in the early 19th century. Concerned with humanity’s connection to the natural world, Martin’s works, which drew on a spirituality also coveted by the Romantics, fit the Romantic ethos like a glove. Furthermore, his works invoke the ‘sublime,’ an artistic effect in which nature, and its power over humanity, should trigger an extreme surge of emotion within the viewer. With their oftentimes apocalyptic and sweeping grandeur, Martin’s works certainly fit this bill.

Not only did the public adore his works, but he was also touted by royalty. In 1817 he was appointed historical painter to Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg (1790-1865) whilst the prince was living in London. Leopold would later become the King of Belgium, and as a result, would bestow upon Martin the Order of St Leopold.

This opened up a relationship with the Belgian art scene which saw him become a member of the Belgian Academy in 1834. Martin also enjoyed a personal relationship with Leopold. Not only was his son Leopold named after the prince but he was also his godson. Martin received additional accolades from the likes of Tsar Nicholas of Russia.

Martin’s reputation was further enhanced by his work as a mezzotint engraver. Through the reproduction of his works through print, it meant they could be viewed by many more people, thus increasing Martin’s reputation further. Martin set up a printing press in the rooms beneath his art studio, employing a number of printers to execute this task.

He also undertook original engravings as commissions. The most famous of these are his works for a copy of John Milton’s poem ‘Paradise Lost.’ Perhaps Martin was the only artist skilled enough to capture the epic nature of the poem and translate it into a visual medium. This he did with great success. His prints are still considered the definitive illustrations of Milton’s work to this day.

Unfortunately, during the 1830s interest in Martin’s work waned. During this time, he instead turned his attention to engineering. He devised schemes to solve the London sewage and water problems and studied railway schematics. Interestingly, his design for waterworks seem to have taken inspiration from his art. The architecture he proposed echoed the buildings of Babylon included in his paintings.

Martin’s prospects recovered in the 1840s, and until his death in 1854, he continued to produce works to much celebration and acclaim. His legacy was just as rich and widespread as his works. The artist Thomas Cole (1801-1848), who would become a founder of American landscape painting, was inspired by his works, as were the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

Writers, too, took inspiration. A print of ‘Belshazzar's Feast’ hung in the Parsonage of the Brontë sisters and was a great influence on the writing of Charlotte Brontë.

Even early cinema drew upon Martin’s work to create fantastical, epic scenes, such as in D.W. Griffith’s (1875-1948) film ‘Intolerance’ (1916). His vision of Babylon was taken directly from Martin’s works.

Martin’s artistic legacy was also continued by his sons. Alfred Martin would become a mezzotint engraver, and Charles Martin (1820-1906) also became a painter, mainly executing portraits.

Safe to say, then, that John Martin’s influence on the art world has been immense. It spanned across Britain, across Europe, across the Atlantic. It contributed to the artistic trends of his time and also successive modes in art. It also influenced other mediums, other minds, other methods. At the heart of this inspiration are works so magnificent, so moving and thought-provoking, that they seem timeless.

Today, Martin’s work can be seen in the most eminent art institutions in the world. These include the V&A, Tate Britain, and the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.


Born in Haydon Bridge, Northumberland, Britain.


Moved to London.


Worked at William Collins glassworks.


Married Elizabeth Garrett.


Exhibited frequently at the Royal Academy.


Exhibited frequently at the British Institution.


Appointed historical painter to Prince Leopold.


Became a founding member of the Society of British Artists.


Exhibited with the Society of British Artists.


Elected a member of the Belgian Academy.


Exhibited with the Society of British Artists.


Died in Douglas, Isle of Man. Buried in Kirk Braddan Cemetery, Isle of Man.

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