John Martin (1789-1854) is one of the most extraordinary figures in British art. His large-scale, dramatic paintings, encompassing catastrophe, war, apocalypse and nature on an epic scale, were the disaster movies of their day, connecting with a wider and more diverse audience than had ever previously been engaged by fine art. His influence has extended to Hollywood film directors and science-fiction authors and still reverberates among artists today. Martin was a popular artist in the true sense, combining the roles of showman and entrepreneur with that of visionary painter, but his very popularity has led to him being overlooked in many conventional histories of art. His early exploitation of the possibilities offered by printed reproduction caused alarm among high-minded critics and artists (notably John Constable and William Hazlitt) who saw his art as the debasement of the grand tradition. The painter's humble origins, his initial training as a painter in a coach-works in Newcastle and later employment decorating china in London were additional factors in his critical reception.
His interest in science and engineering, including his proposals for drainage systems and rail-links for London, further confused the critic's idea of the proper role of the artist. In many ways, Martin's art and life-story epitomise the reshaping of British society and identity played out in the nineteenth century. Accompanying a major exhibition at Tate Britain, this is the first comprehensive reassessment of Martin's career for many years. It questions Martin's place in art history and challenges our own ideas of 'good' and 'bad' taste and 'high' and 'low' art.
Martin Myrone is Curator (18th & 19th Century British Art) at Tate Britain and is the author of The Blake Book and Henry Fuseli. Contributors: Anna Austen, David Bindman, Michael Campbell, Lars Kokkonen and Julie Milne.