John Martin’s large, vividly coloured and detailed oil painting imagines the extent of the disaster that famously beset the sister cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum when the volcano Mount Vesuvius erupted on 24 August AD 79. Taking as its vantage point the shores of the town of Stabiae, on the opposite side of the Bay of Naples, the picture shows a multitude of fleeing survivors struggling on to dry land. Herculaneum is in the distance to the left, smothered with lava; Pompeii is laid out in sufficient detail to be able to identify specific buildings, most prominently the circular ‘great Theatre’ and the Basilica. Mount Vesuvius is shown in the early stages of the eruption, the glow of lava colouring the whole landscape a vivid red, while the sky is convulsed by billowing ash clouds and shredded by lightning. A contemporary, Joseph Jean Pichot, noted in relation to the artist: ‘Volcanic eruptions are, of course, calculated to furnish him with brilliant subjects. In representing the eruption of Vesuvius, he has been less desirous of giving a dramatic effect to his figures, by poutraying [sic] the gestures and attitudes of terror, than of producing powerful contrasts by every reflection of light on the groupes [sic] and scenery’ (Joseph Jean Pichot, Historical and Literary Tour of a Foreigner in England, 2 vols, London 1825, vol.1, p.123).
The painting was first exhibited as the centrepiece of John Martin’s one-man show at the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly, London in 1822. The Egyptian Hall was a commercial venture and Martin’s show sat within a programme of varied entertainments, including an exhibition on Lapland (featuring actual Laplanders in full costume with a sledge and live reindeer, before a panoramic backdrop), the annual exhibition of the Society of Painters in Watercolour, ‘The Terror of India’ (with a gigantic snake and other supposedly terrifying animals), and the ‘African Museum of Natural History’. The exhibition of the painting confirmed Martin’s growing reputation among the general public as a painter of spectacular scenes of disaster. High-minded critics were less impressed, however, and tended to view such pictures as sensationalist entertainments rather than serious art.
The painting had been commissioned by Richard Grenville (1776–1839), who was created the 1st Duke of Buckingham and Chandos in 1822. It was bought by the National Gallery in 1867 and later transferred to the Tate Gallery. In 1928 the painting was in basement storage when the Tate suffered a disastrous flood. The picture was badly damaged and effectively written off but was extensively restored in 2011.
William Feaver, The Art of John Martin, Oxford 1975, pp.55–9.
Paul P. Costeloe, William Bullock Connoisseur and Virtuoso of the Egyptian Hall: Piccadilly to Mexico, Bristol 2008.
Martin Myrone (ed.), John Martin: Apocalypse, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain, London 2012, pp.109–15.