Martin, John (1789-1854) (DNB00)

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MARTIN, JOHN (1789–1854), historical and landscape painter, was born at Haydon Bridge, near Hexham, Northumberland, on 19 July 1789. His father, Fenwick Martin, a fencing master, held classes at the Chancellor's Head, Newcastle. His brothers, Jonathan (1782–1838) and William (1772–1851), are separately noticed. John was apprenticed, when fourteen, to Wilson, a Newcastle coach-painter, and ran away after a dispute as to payment of wages, but the proceedings which his master took against him were decided in his favour. He was then placed at Newcastle under a china-painter, Boniface Musso, an Italian, whom he accompanied in 1806 to London, where Musso's son, a miniature-painter known as Charles Muss [q. v.], was then living. He took a room in Adam Street West, Cumberland Place, and supported himself by painting on china and glass, while he studied perspective and architecture. He married at the age of nineteen, and in 1812 was living in High Street, Marylebone, when he sent to the Royal Academy his first pictures, two landscapes and ‘Sadak in Search of the Waters of Oblivion,’ from the ‘Tales of the Genii.’ The little figure of Sadak was almost lost in the wild landscape of gigantic rocks, and he is said to have overheard the men who were putting it into the frame disputing which was the top of the picture. It was an original and striking composition, and found a purchaser in Mr. Manning, the bank director, who paid him fifty guineas for it. It was probably about this time that he was introduced to West, the president of the Royal Academy, who was, as usual, kind and encouraging, even prophesying, it is said, his future greatness. ‘Adam's First Sight of Eve,’ which he exhibited the next year, was sold to a Mr. Spong for seventy guineas. In 1814 he felt himself aggrieved at the position in which his picture (‘Clytie’) was hung, and the feeling thus roused was aggravated in 1816 by what he considered a similar injustice with regard to ‘Joshua commanding the Sun to stand still.’ From this time forward, although he did not cease to contribute to their exhibitions, he remained an angry opponent of the Royal Academy. The ‘Joshua’ attracted great attention, and in the following year it obtained a premium of 100l. at the British Institution. In this year (1817) Martin was appointed historical painter to the Princess Charlotte and Prince Leopold, published ‘Character of Trees, in a series of seven Plates,’ drawn and etched by himself, and exhibited ‘The Bard’ at the Royal Academy. In 1817 or 1818 he removed to 30 Allsop Terrace, New (now Marylebone) Road, and in the next year exhibited a large picture called ‘The Fall of Babylon’ at the British Institution. This was followed in 1820 by ‘Macbeth,’ and in 1821 by the celebrated ‘Belshazzar's Feast,’ for which he was awarded a premium of 200l. He said afterwards that the conception was assisted by his reading a Cambridge prize poem, by T. S. Hughes, on the subject. It is generally regarded as his finest work, and its masses of colossal architecture retreating into infinite perspective, its crowds of small figures, the glitter of huge gold candelabra, and other details of the feast, all seen in strange varieties of light and gloom, enhanced by the vivid ‘writing on the wall,’ to which all eyes are turned, produced an overwhelming effect upon the public. The picture was repeated on glass, and exhibited as a transparency in the Strand. The fame of the artist now rose to an extravagant height, which he succeeded in maintaining for many years by works of a similar class, such as ‘The Destruction of Herculaneum’ (1822) and ‘The Seventh Plague’ (1823). He joined the Society (now Royal) of British Artists on its foundation, and exhibited with them from 1824 to 1831, and in 1837 and 1838, after which he sent his more important pictures to the Royal Academy. In 1833 he sent ‘The Fall of Nineveh’ to the exhibition at Brussels. The picture was bought by the Belgian government, the Belgian Academy elected him a member, and the king of Belgium gave him the order of Leopold. In 1836, from his evidence before a committee of the House of Commons, it would appear that he had now quarrelled with the British Institution, as he accused them of making an arrangement with the Royal Academy to give the academicians the best places at their exhibitions. In 1837 he exhibited ‘The Deluge’ at the Royal Academy, in 1838 ‘The Death of Moses’ and ‘The Death of Jacob,’ in 1839 ‘The Last Man’ (a subject repeated in 1850), and in 1840 ‘The Eve of the Deluge’ and ‘The Assuaging of the Waters.’ After these came ‘Pandemonium’ and a succession of divers works (including many landscapes in water-colours) till 1852. Among his landscapes were scenes on the Thames, the Brent, the Wandle, the Wey, and the Sittingbourne, and of the hills and eminences around London. Many of these were drawn when wandering around and about London devising schemes for supplying the metropolis with water. This subject is said to have engaged his attention after 1827, and later he was actively interested also in the improvement of the docks and sewers of London.

Many of his works were engraved, some by himself. The best-known are those after ‘Belshazzar's Feast,’ ‘Joshua commanding the Sun to stand still,’ ‘The Fall of Nineveh,’ and ‘The Fall of Babylon.’ The engravings of the first two, together with that of ‘The Deluge,’ were presented by the French Academy to Louis-Philippe, who ordered a special medal to be struck and sent to Martin in token of his esteem. To these may be added ‘The Ascent of Elijah,’ ‘Christ tempted in the Wilderness,’ and his illustrations (with Westall) to Milton's ‘Paradise Lost,’ for which he received the sum of 2,000l.

In 1837 Martin's address was 19 Charles Street, Berners Street, and in the following year 30 Allsop Terrace, New Road, whence he removed to Lindsey House, Chelsea, in 1848 or 1849. He was living here when, in 1852, he sent to the Royal Academy his last contributions, which included ‘The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.’ On 12 Nov. 1853, while engaged upon his last large pictures, ‘The Last Judgment,’ ‘The Great Day of his Wrath,’ and ‘The Plains of Heaven,’ he was seized with paralysis, which deprived him of speech and of power in the right arm. He was taken to the Isle of Man for the benefit of his health; but convinced that abstinence would cure him, he refused sufficient nourishment, and died at Douglas 17 Feb. 1854. After his death the three large pictures of the Apocalypse already mentioned were exhibited in London and the chief cities in England, attracting great crowds and many subscribers for the engravings from them which were subsequently published. His eldest son, Charles (1810–1906), was a well-known portrait-painter. A younger son, Leopold Charles [q. v.], is noticed separately.

From a portrait by Wageman in the ‘Magazine of the Fine Arts’ for 1834, Martin would appear to have been a good-looking man with an animated countenance. His relations with the several artistic societies with which he was connected prove him to have been somewhat impatient, and more ready to take offence than to forget it. There was possibly some touch of insanity in the family, as all his three brothers were, to say the least, eccentric. That he was capable of a generous recognition of the merits of a brother artist is shown by his purchase of Etty's picture of ‘The Combat’ in 1825. He is said to have given 200l. or 300l. for it.

There are three of Martin's water-colour drawings and one landscape in oil in the South Kensington Museum. At the time of his death his principal pictures were in the collections of Lord De Tabley, the Dukes of Buckingham and Sutherland, Messrs. Hope and Scarisbrick, Earl Grey, and Prince Albert. Several of his most typical works, including ‘Joshua,’ are now in the possession of the Leyland family at Nantclwyd, North Wales (see Notes and Queries, 6th ser. xii. 452).

Martin was once ranked among the greatest geniuses of all time. His pictures were said to reveal a ‘greatness and a grandeur’ which were ‘never even dreamed of by men until they first flashed with electric splendour upon the unexpecting public’ (see Magazine of the Fine Arts, iii. 97, &c., published December 1833). Wilkie, in a letter to Sir George Beaumont, describes ‘Belshazzar's Feast’ as a ‘phenomenon;’ Bulwer (afterwards Lord) Lytton declared he was ‘more original, more self-dependent, than Raphael or Michel Angelo.’ On the other hand, Charles Lamb made Martin's work the text of his essay on ‘The Barrenness of the Imaginative Faculty in the Productions of Modern Art’ (cf. Lamb, Letters, ed. Ainger, ii. 166). Before his death Martin's reputation had greatly decreased; his work was called ‘meretricious,’ ‘mechanical,’ and ‘tricky,’ and his obvious deficiencies in drawing and colour became the principal theme of his critics. But Martin, if he was once praised too highly, was no charlatan. Although, as Wilkie said in the letter referred to above, he was ‘weak in all those points in which he can be compared with other artists,’ he had a strong and fertile invention, and conceived spectacles which, if not sublime, were imposing and original. The power of his imagination is perhaps now best to be appreciated in his illustrations to Milton (drawn by him on the plates), where the smallness of the scale and the absence of colour enable us to appreciate the grandeur of his conceptions without being too strongly reminded of his defects as an artist.

[Gent. Mag. 1854, i. 433–6; Georgian Era, iv. 156; Redgrave's Dict.; Redgraves' Century; Annals of the Fine Arts, 1833, 1834; Art Journal, 1854 p. 118, &c., 1855 p. 195; Catalogues of Royal Academy, &c.]

C. M.