The John Martin exhibition is now open at Tate Britain, and it’s been a busy few days. As part of the Great British Art Debate, we’re hoping his work prompts a bit of debate!

While he was a hugely popular artist during his lifetime, he remained something of an outsider, scorned by art critics like John Ruskin and the Royal Academy of Arts at the time.

The drama and spectacle of his paintings did, though, earn him fans like Charles Dickens and the Brontë sisters, while showing works at popular venues meant his works were seen by the mass market rather than an academic elite.

John Martin, 'The Plains of Heaven' 1851-3
John Martin
The Plains of Heaven 1851-3
Oil on canvas
support: 1988 x 3067 mm
frame: 2415 x 3485 x 175 mm
Bequeathed by Charlotte Frank in memory of her husband Robert Frank 1974

Did the show provoke you think about ‘good taste’ and ‘bad taste’? Or how the way we see art can change over time?

I’d be really interested to hear your thoughts on John Martin and his art, and about the exhibition itself, so please leave a comment and let me know what you think.



This, and the Vorticist exhibition have been the highlights of my cultural year.

Thanks Tate and keep up the excellent work.

Mary Hempshall

It was a wonderful exhibition - especially the animated tryptich, which made me think about higher things. Very well done.


Reflecting on this amazing John Martin exhibition I feel that there is much more to him than we currently understand. In a sense these are works reflecting an inner landscape and as such allude to a gnosis far older than Chritianity. The vortexes and caverns revealed in the paintings perhaps represent the Tunnels of Set and the Firesnake which haunts them in the noumenal world of the cerebellum. From this point of view maybe they are precurssors of a new Aeon

Dennis Bean

I first came across Martin's work whilst at Uni in Newcastle many years ago and have been a convert ever since. I have never accepted that popular art [of it's time] has to, by inference, mean in any sense it is of lower value. Surely the merit is in the artist's interpretation and communication of the subject itself rather than how the art "Establishment" of the time reacts? A few years ago I came to an equally wonderful exhibition at the Tate called "American Sublime". Put the two together and you can see I'm sold on the huge apocalyptic, gothic, visionary landscapes,and still marvel at the immense detail and insight that went into creating these works. The Tate have done a brilliant job at bringing these works together. Thank you so much.


I must have seen some of Martin's paintings in the past, but they obviously made no lasting impression on me. With the exhibition titled "Apocalypse" I was expecting the work of either a demented or tormented soul, particularly after reading some the reviews. However, after seeing the exhibition I think Martin was more a smooth, if pedantic, operator who knew what the masses wanted: an entertainer and sensationalist.

The exhibition itself revealed that he had a bit more breadth than just his apocalyptic pictures. However, probably because of todays technology, and the imagery we are exposed to, the apocalyptic paintings do not have the impact they likely did in Martin's day and in fact look a little quaint.

A well displayed and uncluttered exhibition and I am sure JM would approve of the light show as these paintings were about entertainment and "amazement".


I arrived at the Tate to view the Martin exhibition after visiting 'Degas' at the Academy. I can honestly say that the Martin exhibition was more inspiring than any of the dancers. I really enjoyed the way the light show bought the triptych to life and it is an exhibition that will remain in my thoughts for some time. I thought the inclusion of the Glenn Brown piece in the last room was a stroke of genius. All the way around I was trying to remember the contemporary artist's name who produced similar paintings and their he was! The juxtaposition of the two artists worked extremely well. The exhibition was a triumph, congratulations to the Tate team.

David Green

Most of my art reviews are on contemporary artists, but getting a chance to view earlier works helps in framing the present. I knew nothing of John Martin before I visited; in fact I was at Tate Britain viewing Barry Flanagan's work when I decided to supplement my day. Martin's work was impressive in a Hollywood sort of sense: big, bold, graphic...very un-British (if you leave out the last 20 years). I can see why film makers are drawn to his style. His work is very impressive, and the curating with video project fit right in.


I'm astonished that something can be at once kitsch and subtle, over the top and yet tenderly moving. The sensitive mark making in the prints and the tonal-chromatic power of the paintings make a show that is hugely powerful and enjoyable on many levels - I found myself almost laughing in places, awestruck elsewhere. It's not a good idea to leave the last word to another artist though. However I think that Martin would have been thrilled with the dramatic presentation; I thought it worked really well and caught the mood of the work in it's own period. Thank you.


Extraordinary! indeed. We're had a great time. Thank you very much.

Graham Humphreys

Extraordinary! despite the nasty little figures. The scale of vision was truly inspiring. Aside from his very apparent influence on the the world of Science Fiction, I was often reminded of the work of David Roberts. Will be recommending this to everybody!

Stephen Griffith

I seem to remember that at some point Martin was a theatrical scenery painted, which explains a great deal. His spectacular canvases are exactly that: the equivalent of the old biblical epics in terms of exaggeration. At church on the previous Sunday we had had a reading of the Book of Revelation, and Martin's apocalyptic visions are deeply imbued with Jewish-Christian apocalyptic which must have been very popular in Victorian Britain, but probably hard for modern sensitivities. I loved the mitred bishops and other papists, as well as some protestants, being thrown into hell: who would go there now? Hedge fund managers?

Geoff Riding

Obviously impressive, though I can't say I'm a fan and his work didn't seem to progress, just more of the same, no wonder he got the criticism later in his career! The film commentary had a dynamicism, and I liked the last repro-piece about Dali! Got a lot more from "Black Lines" room, but that's another story!

Professor Peter...

I was brought up in Northumberland in the Hellfire and Damnation Primitive Mehodist tradition and despite intellectually discarding that as soon as I left for University find that Martin encapsulates all of that, in a way I still find thrilling and a bit disturbing. Old Testament and Revelations rolled into one!

I am a Professor of Geoscience and while his rocks dont represent the way they really 'ARE' that doesn't bother me at all.

I can see why the 'aesthetes' commenting here find it a bit OTT but the guy certainly had imagination.

You need to see these at full scale and need to have space to stand well back to get the full panorama and ten get up close to see the minutiae.

Enjoyed it immensely

Dont be put off by the negative comments here. Go and see it, suspend your delicate sensibilities and just soak up the atmosphere.

John Credland

I thought the exhibition was well handled, well staged, the audio guide was well produced and relevant. Thank you all for the good work. Sometimes there was just too much drama in the one room. Previously when I have seen the apocalypse painting it has been the lone 'Martin' in a room. When it hangs with two others side by side it loses its impact. Nothing can be done about this of course and I enjoyed the period 'gaslight' feel of the triptych presentation. Other commentators (above) obviously missed the pint.


I really enjoyed the exhibition and I am glad that it gave me a chance to know a little about an artist I was previously unaware of. I found the work visually impressive and thought-provoking, the light show was engaging and it was great to see the way Martin's work is a precursor for later imaginative art.

Chas Perrett

What I have enjoyed about the recent run of Exhibitions at the Tate Galleries is the diversity and breadth of work shown. John Martin providing yet another window on the way individual artists follow their line of enquiry. I found it very impressive, the light show wasn't working when i went so I can't comment on that but overall it was a powerful demonstration of a man's talent and 'obsession'.

m parker

Loved the exhibition itself. I have waited several years for this. I think JM was a terific artist, very original. The paintings were well displayed and the audio guide was quite good. However, the audio visual show was ridiculous, laugh out loud silly. Might appeal to a 5 year old (which is good) but not a grown up. When the show finished, when I saw it, the was a mixture of I-can't-believe-they-did-looks of stunned silence, embarrassed titters and hoots of laughter from the audience. It is great to at last see some postcards and posters of JMs work on sale at the Tate but I can't believe you don't have any of his greatest work, Balshazzar's Feast.

Jon Britten

I enjoyed the exhibition.

On a technical level I didn't like the look of the paintings close up but appreciated the effects achieved when viewed at the right distance. For this and other reasons I didn't much like room 5. I don't think it did the paintings justice. For example the dark Chasm in the painting on the right wasn't dark enough. I'm sure that when I'd previously viewed it from afar the chasm was what impressed me most. It was effective. Could the lighting have been better?

The light show was unhelpful and unnecessary. Although not great Art in the sense of it not having anything profound to say, the works were compelling enough to not have to resort to Gimmickry, which is how I felt about it. The Artist himself was greatly criticized in his day for his works being something like on this level and some of those criticisms were fair enough, but the works themselves are still fairly awesome achievements in terms of the mans dedication, boldness and perseverance. he wanted to be taken seriously and I think we at least could do him that respect.

I think a dark room with the paintings well lit may have been better. That really did something for the Carravagios on show at the national some years ago.

It was interesting to me that of the recordings, only the new heavens and earth piece was fully quoted from the Bible. All that stuff about Hell and damnation isn't in the bible. The bible talks about Hell but doesn't go into specifics. Artists have loved to embellish these things since Dante and Durer. I think that In our day and age we are no different. This aspect of the show only serves to reinforce peoples ignorance of the Bible and is frankly disrespectful of those who believe. I think that the lines should be carefully drawn.

One last thing. There is loads any painter can learn from that exhibition who is interested in the craft.

If you think any of that is unfair, please let me know. Thanks. Jon

Anthony O'Hear

Open letter to Martin Myrone, in reply to his e-mail of October 8th.

Dear Myrone, This is my reply to your second request for my 'extremely important' view on the Martin exhibition. I am not 'Anthony' to you, but it is clear that in writing to me thus yesterday, asking once more for my reactions to the exhibition, you have not noticed that my extremely important view has already appeared on your blog on September 26th. My feelings about the exhibition were much the same yesterday as they were on Sept 26th, but I did on this occasion get the catalogue. I was fascinated to notice that my earlier comparison between Martin and the art celebrities of to-day is actually anticipated by the introduction from the Tate's director. She says that 'it is the contention of this exhibition' that the 'vulnerable' (!) reputation of Martin in recent times is 'the result of prejudice against the popular', and she goes on to refer to 'artistic showmanship' and the 'increasingly spectacular nature of the art of our time'. Given that the Tate has for the past few decades played a not insignificant part in promoting this 'increasingly spectacular' stuff, it looks as if Martin is being recruited as a player in the art politics not just of his time, but of ours too! Ruskin's comment that Martin is not a painter, but a workman, whose works are 'merely a common manufacture' (catalogue, p 13),'an assembly-line product' (p 210) seems pretty spot-on to me - and no amount of puffing about prejudice and the popular will transform the merely fashionable into something of enduring worth. Yours sincerely, Anthony O'Hear

John Haigh

I thought it was a great exhibit, as usual beautifully arranged. I have been a fan of Martin for a long time and would regularly look at the big three that were on display in the permanent collection. Wonderful dramatic use of colour and scale. Highly recomended.

Nicola Osborne

As many of the comments have stated, one to divide opinion! Whatever you may feel about the subject matter etc, there is no getting away form the technical abilities of Martin. I could not help but feel that there should be some thumping, thrashing prog rock playing as I strolled amongst the "album covers" but at the same time I was arrested by the scale and drama of the works. Generally a hit!


Its only been in the past year that ive actually started to visit the tate galleries.I was an armchair critic,basically watching documentaries or the odd glossy book from the library. But now,to see paintings,particularly John Martins,close up and in there settings was a changing experience for me.To see the physical size and the intensity of colours compared to a reproduction in a book is so different.Im almost dissapointed to look at the pictures in my John Martins book now.Anyway, it was a pleasure to just stand and absorb his pictures.thoroughly enjoyed it.


Yes, popular in his time and you can see why. The public views by candlight of subjects most people would have been aware of and frightened of . . . I think it is spectacular! Only one comment the lighting is not quite right on some paintings and shines on parts the paintings (I know they are large). Always a great day out a visit to Tate Britain and then the boat to Bankside for a pot of tea on the members terrace at Tate Modern. But then its simple pleasures that please most of us!


I have long been looking forward to this show having been a Martin obsessive for a couple of years and it was amazing to see the entire body of work together. Surprisingly I found myself drawn to the calmer images - equally dramatic and epic - works like the Assuaging of the Waters, the Eve of the Deluge or The Last Man.

In a word - phenomenal.


I thought that as one of the main parts of the exhibition was Martin's mastery of the Mezzotint it would have been really good to have had on display a mezzotint plate. Although there was an explanation of the process I found it incredible to imagine the process and wished I could have seen a plate to appreciate the skill.

The exhibition was excellent and the art works amazing.


I thoroughly enjoyed the exhibition. I loved the grandeur and the spectacle of it all but I must confess that my enjoyment of the show was greatly aided by doing some pre-reading (the excellent article in the Tate member's magazine). I was alerted to the possibility that he may have been a millenarian but I am more of the persuasion that he was more Deist who perhaps wanted to appeal to what was in vogue at that time, to be accepted more. It did seem fractionally gimmicky but I loved all the gimmicky triptych stuff. It was kind of corny but it gave a good view of what was being said at that tim, and I appreciated that he was not classically trained with the use of colour, but, for me, none of this was to his detriment, and it did not hinder any of my pleasure of the exhibit. I love the fact that he has been such an influence on modern day directors -- that makes him a forerunner in his field, and anyone who has that vision certainly has my vote. I was also impressed with his humanitarian concerns (improving our sewage system). He was a man who cared about things passionately and he wanted to see change. It's disappointing he wasn't accepted by the establishment for his art and his civic pride as he seemed like a talented man with integrity. Sadly he was a man who was a tad misguided. But I have recommended that exhibition to friends because these bombastic, giant paintings need to be experienced.

Ken Baldry

Ludicrous & hilarious but didn't he work hard? A good thing I'm an atheist. Fundy Christians must be shaking in their shoes.

Michael Neville

My impression of John Martin's work is that it is, of course, sensational, but also superficial and child like.

As someone with an orthodox Christian faith I did not think his understanding of Christianity showed much depth. For example, his depiction of the heavenly plains with no-one on them whereas the promise is of a new creation filled with a vast multitude from every tribe and nation and language.

I was disappointed with the interpretation of judgment in the sound and light presentation. The tone of voice was stern and harsh and threatening. There was no sense of the book of Revelation's relief that at last the evil which is so ruinous has been dealt with.

I think my favourite painting was 'Before the deluge'. I love the tiny Ark high above the plain bringing out the extraordinary trust in God shown by Noah, believing that the waters would indeed rise that hight.

Namik Ozturk

Mmmm, it took me 5 minutes to look round the show and less than a minute to be bored, sorry. Yes he had skill, great skill but just because a man has these qualities does mean for one minute others won't appreciate what he has created with these skills. It was the same subject matter over and over again. I'm glad he made loads of money as mentioned as we walked in to the start of the show.At the time his work must have seemed fascinating and ahead of his time. I walked out of the light show. Found the whole experience dull. What I can say, is well done to the marketing department for getting us through the door; the posters advertising the exhibition were much better than the paintings. Could not connect with John Martin...sorry


It is not hard to see how the early moviemakers concerned with epic productions must have been inspired by John Martin's imaginative depiction of historical and biblical events.He is reminiscent of Altdorfer's panoramic paintings. So much detail deserves return viewing.


I thought the Martin paintings were awful ! At one point I was giggling at one work and another viewer saw me and we got talking. We agreed they were dreadful and found ourselves comparing then to those comic books that were popular in the sixties. We also agreed that this was being a member of the Tate was about. Seeing things you would never normally see and learning about something new. Terrible art but a very good experience. Makes me glad to be a member.


I was not familiar with Martin's work until this exhibition. I had a quick 'fly through' visit this weekend. I did not experience the sound and visual, finding it rather off putting, so avoided it. I was surprised by the work and enjoyed the way it was exhibited. I will visit again and look in more depth.

Jo Rigby

I took the children, aged 3 and 5, who absolutely loved the exhibition, it really captured their imaginations in terms of the colours and mythical images. We visited the Art Trolley afterwards and my 5 year old created a sea monster picture using red tissue paper for the sea on fire, as she'd seen in the Martin paintings.

It was lovely to have an exhibition that suited the kids also and was something they wanted to spend time with, usually I have to dash through exhibitions in 5 minutes!

Kiran Rahman

Went to see the exhibition this past weekend and thought it was incredible. Loved the drama and macabre visions of heaven and hell, and the sheer number of his paintings on display made it a truly worthwhile exhibition to attend. I'd highly recommend going, and may even go again myself!


The exhibition was amazing! I love his paintings anyway, but the way they were displayed with the projections, lights and sound show really brought the paintings more to life than they already are, if that's possible!!

A MUST see show...I'm going again!!

Monroe Hodder

I meant to say Kirsten Baker, the contemporary abstract painter.

Des Horan

A graphic insight into the naivety of a relatively recent age. I can't say I that it was an enjoyable experience but it was certainly worthwhile. Thanks.

Monroe Hodder

I thought John Martin's paintings were a dazzling spectacle a science fiction like sound and light show -and very appropriate for 21st century viewers in their cinematic cloud rolls of doom and majesty. I think these images reverberate with many contemporary abstract painters (Kirsten Dunst, Philip Ackerworth etc.)

Susie Campbell

Thought the show demanded a real act of active imagination to understand the impact Martin's work must have had on his public. I had to imagine myself back to a time pre-cinema and the kind of visual spectacle we take for granted - and I like that kind of challenge as a visitor to a gallery. it refreshes the way you look at the contemporary!

I was fascinated by the impact Martin has clearly had on film-makers - I kept thinking of James Cameron (the interest in 3D and perspective to intensify emotional impact) and Peter Jackson (the "architecture" of the epic!) etc.

Great exhibition in that it took me out of my normal mindset!


Struggled to engage with it.

Andrew Hammond

Just to add to my previous comments;I agree absolutely with Kate Macdonald's suggestion that more work that was influenced by Martin's could have been shown - indeed I'd got the impression from the free booklet that there would be more of this in the exhibition. (I was looking at the paintings and seeing scenes from Peter Jackson's magnificent Lord of The Rings films in them!) By the way,I meant "Hidden Paintings"rather than "Lost".

H Simmons

As a teenager, growing up in Northumberland, I was lucky enough to have an inspirational art teacher, Don Green, who introduced his pupils to many art forms. I have him to thank for the introduction to the works of John Martin oh so many years ago. I'm looking forward to coming to the Tate to see the works once more plus ones I haven't already seen 'in the flesh' so to speak.

Fraser Borwick

This exhibition is brilliant! I have always admired john Martin since I came across his work in 1976 in John Laing. His imagination puts modern artists to shame. The work is technically brilliant. U can't cope with snobs who think he is kitch or "over the top". Its brilliant art.

Ros Ormiston

I loved it. I spent a brilliant Saturday morning absorbing eveything in the John Martin 'Apocalypse' exhibition. The sound and light show by 'Uninvited Guests' was a fascinating insight into how an artist might promote his work in the 19th century. Apart from the rude woman sitting next to me who decided to send text messages on her phone throughout the ten-minutes show - I felt I could have been in a theatre in the Strand, watching one of Martin's sound and light shows. Excellent stuff! My favourite work by Martin was a mezzotint with etching, 'Sadak in Search of the Waters of Oblivion', 1841, more spellbinding than the painting of the same name and, his book illustrations. kind regards Ros Ormiston

Guy Harvey

On any reckoning this is a stunning show. Whether or not this is "great art" (who should really care), it is a tribute to John Martin's immense sweep that the effect of all these vast canvases is cumulative and not wearing. It is a treat to see so many images side by side and to realise again how much more potent and visceral his pictures are in reality rather than in reproduction in a book.

Touching too to see his gentle watercolours and to realise that the creator of Pandemonium also had a relaxed and happy side.

So much of the cinematic imagery of modern disaster films owes an obvious debt to him that it is hard to remember how strikingly original and magnificent these works must have seemed to so many observers in the 19th century. The emptiness of modern CGI is shown up against the raw splendour of his panoramic hordes of exotic biblical peoples.

What from the cynicism of the 21st century seems trite or laboured screams originality from his art when one is confronted by it on such scale (individually and collectively) as here.

The AV presentation was fine - and I bet Martin would have loved it! Great to play to the gallery in this way and still plenty of time available to study the masterly form and construction of these works between shows; and not to revel in these paintings in the silent twenty minutes as well would be a terrible waste.

It is clear from the comments on this blog that even 157 years after his death, his paintings still divide opinion. How refreshing! So much art, and so many exhibitions, are uncontroversial in that the genius of such and such an artist is universally acknowledged. The sense of danger in Martin's works make for a rougher, but ultimately very satisfying, journey.

Bravo Tate too for allowing so much space to view the pictures - both close up and from the different perspective that distance brings.

A display with real (or is it artificial?) "wow" factor and, as our financial world seems to be going to Hell in a handcart, an ideal accompaniment to Modern Times!

Tammy T

Amazing it was. what an extraordinary imagination and vision. I am very interested in what might have stimulated John Martin's creative vision and what existing images in his early life would have fed and fuelled his imaginative world. As a work psychologist redearching remote work and virtual communication I am intrigued by how our relationships and creativity can be both fed and starved- I would be delighted to hear from Martin Myrone and others about this.

Julie Bowdler

A really enjoyable exhibition that made everyone smile - and some even talk to each other! (Prog rock and gate-fold sleeves, we noted.) The sound and light show was super. You have to see the paintings to appreciate the scale. Well worth seeing. And a great catalogue, too.

Dr. Wolfram Sch...

Having seen the exibition 2 days ago there is more left in my mind than I would like to confess, given to the pictures. So:Due to the brilliant presentation I think more about John Martyn and his oevre. And that`s what a good exibition is for, isn`t it?

Les Brown

Good fun - enjoyable if a bit overpowering, not for my front room. I agree with Mark Williams that it would have been interesting to see more on John Martin's influence on North American landscape art.


I was really looking forward to this exhibition, came down to see it and the current saatchi show. Really came to experience one of the triptych... so was very disappointed when it was turned into a second rate multimedia experience... so boring that I had to leave before I began shouting for the lights to be turned up. This happening could have been achieved with computerised projections, leaving the works to hang in another gallery to speak for themselves. The greasy shine of the varnish really intruded, breaking the illusion of space far too frequently. Being able to get really close to many of these works was a privilege, examining the progressive loosening of technique, but too often the distorted figures intruded into the exciting landscapes. I appreciate why he had to include figures and devise antique titles to justify the works. However, it was a pleasure to see imagery that had immediate resonance with contemporary art works, with Rothko and Dali among them. The best image in the show for me has to be the Glenn Brown, losing the dodgy figure work and abandoning the story for the imagery, in a rich technique, at a fabulous scale. I will be back to see the exhibition again and maybe sit through the son et lumiere... £17??? glad i'm a member.