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

View the main page for this artwork

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.

Comments

Alison Ridley

As I child I always had a fondness for John Martin - all those wild and apocalyptic images of death and destruction on the grandest scale. I thought the exhibition hugely entertaining especially as I had only ever seen his work in small reproductions - and I particularly enjoyed the immersive experience of The Last Judgement triptych! I agree with some of the other bloggers tho and think that more could have been done to explore the cinematic legacy of his work - I found that aspect particularly interesting. I'm glad I visited.

Steve Trudgill

Hugely enjoyed it - especially reading about the restoration of the Destruction of Pompeii painting in the guide and seeing it. I'd seen the triptych in the Sublime Exhibition and appreciated them there and enjoyed the way the audio-visual gave a different perspective,especially on different parts of the paintings and when I saw it the room was full of young people and it was great to see how engaged they were with the story which the display told.

patanne coombs

I have always admired the works of John Martin and greatly enjoyed viewing this exhibition. I went early in the day and there were very few other people which provided the opportunity of spending time looking at the paintings. The final light and sound was excellent. The voice overs could have taken some direction but the overall effect was 'illuminating'. What a fantastic theatrical designer Martin would have been. Congratulations on a very enjoyable morning.

Lizzy Hones

I loved the minute detail in the paintings. The foreground is just as important as the background. I love the dramatic scenes and vibrant colours.

Huw Jones

I wouldn't have paid extra to go to this exhibition and, having seen it as part of my membership, I haven't changed my mind. Martin undoubtedly had brilliant technique, but the works are repetitive. He has created enormously kitsch cityscapes that go beyond the worst extremes of Victorian neo-classicism, sitting within his apocalyptic landscapes. Figures, usually small within the vast canvases, did not carry much conviction and failed to involve me emotively. If I'd seen only one picture, the destruction of Pompeii, I might have been interested in seeing more. However, seeing more would have left me unconvinced. Martin makes Alma Tadema look sophisticated.

Julie North

Excellent Exhibition, beautifully curated. Very dramatic paintings on such a large scale. Modern Technology and Biblical/science fiction film sets owe a lot to the fantastic vision that he was able illustrate in his paintings and prints.

John Loughran

I thoroughly enjoyed this exhibition. Whether or not afficionados judge Martin's work` to be in "good taste" does not worry me. As regards his effect on later artists, his massive red/orange paintings reminded me of the art work in the EAGLE comic serial, Dan Dare and the Red Planet in which the Mekon made his first appearance. As for the mezzotints of Satan in Council and Pandemonium, they evoked for me the silent movie, Metropolis, which I have seen in recent years. A great exhibition. Will visit again after reading the catalogue. Many thanks.

Beth

I thought the exhibition was fantastic. I have loved John Martin's work ever since seeing his paintings for the first time in the Tate, years ago. I put the dates in my diary as soon as I noticed that the exhibition was coming up. It was wonderful to see so many of Martin's paintings in one place and I found the son et lumiere treatment of the triptych quite effective (voiceovers could have done with a bit of work though). For those who didn't enjoy it; you don't have to sit through it - just wait for the lights to go up! Anyway, I will definitely be coming back for a second viewing of the show. Thanks for making my Tate membership worthwhile.

Janine Garth

Great exhibition. reminded me of those old biblical epic movies, and OTT movies like 'She'. Loved the light show and brimstone and fire sermon type reading, made even more entertaining by a man in the audience calling "I repent!" as the show ended. Regardless of what anyone thinks of his skill as an artist, he gets an A* for effort!

Harley

Good exhibition. Knowing virtually nothing about Martin the man beforehand, the chronological layout across 5 rooms helped explain the development of Martin's work. I liked,the lightshow too. I found the mezzotint prints interesting and the engineering plans for London's sewerage system equally so. Martin's work is,certainly epic but can be a little,repetitive. Also, he doesn't do people very well. His architecture and landscapes,are awesome though. Slightly ironic that a man who earned his crust depicting cautionary tales fron,the,bible about avarice and pride should be so utterly consumedby money making and achieving self recognition. Overall, an enjoyable evening

katie Whitcomb

I thought the sound and light show was highly innovative and brought out the filmic quality of the work. It begs for Wagnerian style music. Well done Tate

Roger Craven

An excellent exhibition, doing him more justice that the smaller one I saw at the Laing. In particular the watercolours gave a quite different perspective on his oeuvre. I was particularly interested in the mezzos as I have one of the large ones and the Paradise Lost and Bible books. Campbell's proofs were wonderful, it is just a pity that he is such an avid collector not leaving the rest of us much opportunity at sensible auction prices!

Julia Matcham

I can't say I liked the paintings, but I was very impressed, even amazed, by the level of skill and from such an early age. There were a couple of gentle paintings of Kensington Gardens free of histrionics, which I would have quite enjoyed owning...almost Corot like. He certainly deserves respect for his abstract control of such large areas never mind the content. Impressive. Never seen anything quite like it. Glad I went.

Sally Ling

Excellent - well presented and just about the right size. Many shows these days are just too big to visit comfortably in one go. The presentation with the last judgement was clever and impressive.

angela M

Just loved it. Have been fascinated by his work since I learnt that at least one mezzotint of Martin's adorned the walls of the Haworth parsonage where the Bronte sisters grew up. All the technical stuff is OK, but it is the imagination and the skill to put it on paper that just overwhelms me and give me great pleasure looking at the paintings.

Andrew

Really enjoyed it, especially listening to other visitors "pooh-poohing" the exhibition and then seeing them lapping up the son-et-lumiere... Mr Martin the showman would have been proud.

susan lloyd

For many years I have had to view Martin's triptych at above head height and could only imagine some of the detail from my study of his work, so this has beeen an eagerly awaited exhibition.It is a good exhibition overall, but the presentation accompanying the triptych lifts it into a truly memorable event and one I shall encourage others to experience. I, also, enjoyed reading Brian Sewell's related article in the Evening Standard and, unusually, found myself applauding his taste and judgement!

Catherine Spratt

I thought that the exhibition was beautifully laid out and clear. The downstairs gallery of Tate Britain is the best gallery space in London. I was fascinated by his visionary plans to improve London. My husband was very annoyed by the style of the clouds which he said looked like tunnels and he hated the trade mark lightning bolts. I thought Martin's water painting was a bit flat although he was very good at reflections. The mezzotint of Satan in Council had some very amusing demons with crossed legs. It looked like a political meeting in the Albert Hall. The volume for the Triptych "Son et lumiere" was too loud - it should have been isolated from the rest of the exhibition. Thanks for revealing and illuminating John Martin's work.

Martin Myrone

Thanks for your comments Rebeccca - think you're spot on, I feel much the same way myself! John Martin's art invites these complex (or conflicted) responses. The sound and light show was intended to elicit the same sort of feelings and responses - including laughter. Can art be kitsch and subtle at the same time? Or, indeed, commercial and idealistic at the same time?

Martin Myrone

Thanks CS - a very concise review of the show! Sorry I can't reply to all the individual comments here, but I hope to pick up on some of the themes which have been raised in future blogs.

Martin Myrone

Dear Anthony O'Hear, Thank you for contributing your further comments. I hope that the gallery texts and catalogue make it clear that we see Martin as a figure who divides opinions, in the past and today, and we're keen that a range of viewpoints can be expressed. I would say that to mount an exhibition of a historical artist is, inevitably, to make an intervention in current 'art politics' - but that the exhibition is not intended to be blandly celebratory. Rather, Martin's status as a commercial operator, a populist, and a 'workman' is aired quite fully: it is up to individual visitors to say whether this makes his art valid and valuable, or not, so your comments are very welcome. I wonder if others agree with your earlier comments that 'Martin's works were the pop art of their day, and, as will happen to to-day's art celebrities, were rightly forgotten...'? You have offered this comment as an 'open letter' in response to an email - this I think is a reference to the e-newsletter rather than a message directed exclusively at you, so I am happy to address you a little more formally and personally in this context. I hope that you will read the further blogs and contribute your thoughts in the future. Martin

Martin Myrone

Thanks for your comments, Chris Weallans. The sound and light show runs for about 10 mins, every thirty minutes, so there is a gap when the three paintings can be seen in normal gallery lighting and the show as a whole free from sound. We recognise that this does leak, although most noticable into the two adjacent rooms. On balance, we think there would be more people who would be disappointed not to be able to witness the show, if we held show-free days. But your comments have been noted.

Martin Myrone

Thankyou for your comments, John Hargreaves. I hope you have followed the other comments, and the further blogs, for more on the sound and light show and on Martin's reputation. I should note that £17 must be the ticket price for the combined Flanagan and Martin shows - but you're right, joining Tate Members is a great way to see the shows for less!

Martin Myrone

Dear Jon Britten Thanks for your comments, I think your views on the best viewing distances for the pictures are quite telling. One line of criticism directed at John Martin in the ninteenth century was that his pictures were all about 'effect'. When we installed the show it became really clear quite how distinctly and emphatically coloured the big pictures are. 'Sadak' in room 1, and the big 'blockbuster' paintings in room 2, are each dominated by a single colour or a pair of colours ('Sadak' and 'Belshazzar's Feast' are very red...'The Destruction of Pompeii...' very orange and pink, and so forth). But Martin himself directed viewers to look very closely at the pictures - hence the outline keys that he produced (there are copies available in room 2). To me, there's a bit of tension between viewing the pictures as great spectacles, with overpowering visual effects, and looking at all the details as closely as Martin directs us to. I find it quite hard to focus on all the details. I wonder if you feel the same? On the point about lighting - we worked with a great lighting team, Lightwaves, and hope the paintings are displayed at their best. John Martin directed that his paintings should be shown so the horizon line is at our eye-level and the picture is brightly lit. But are arists the best people to say how their pictures should be displayed!?

Adrian

I was n't familiar with John Martin's work prior to my visit but enjoyed the exhibition and the mezzotints in particular.

Michael

I loved the triptych with the animation and speech. I actually found it very moving in a strange way - especially the part about 'these former things shall pass away'. I also found his proposals for the embankment and Transport network fascinating. The only thing I guess I didn't get, and maybe this is something that would be impossible to get, was more of the artist's personality, and what drove him to paint these monumental works. Not crucial to its understanding I suppose, but something I would personally have enjoyed.

C S

Two words to describe this exhibition, but not sure which way round is best..mentally monumental, or monumentally mental!

Julie Rey

I saw more than 1 typo in several places. May be worth checking all the rooms...

Viv

Firstly, I am a massive John Martin fan and have been for many many years, fantastic painter.

I agree with a lot of the comments here criticising the 'light show' re-presenting the triptych, I felt offended that a presumption of such strict viewer direction was called for by the curatorial team - however, John Martin himself also felt the need to direct the views gaze (his diagrams).

I also felt the 'light show' was trashy and sensationalist, in a very simplistic and commercially driven sense, I left feeling a little cheap, as if I had indulged in a corny, superficial hollywood blockbuster. However, John Martin himself would have been the first to approve of such an (arguably) commercial and sensationalist re-presenting of his work, he worked for success and spectacle.

I love Martins work but room 5 (if I recall correctly) threw up the possibility that my own beliefs, regarding spectacle and entertainment in art, are vastly different from Martins own! If there was a room full of the painters of that century then Martin would be the first to volunteer his paintings for such a sensationalist experiment (Turner may have walked out scoffing).

If the art of curation is to raise questions then Apocalypse has succeeded.

The other rooms were (for my taste) perfectly assembled and executed - beautiful.

Maria

I didn't know whether to laugh or cry!

Joanna

On the one hand these are fantasy landscapes and clearly come partly from Martin's fertile imagination and on the other I couldn't help wondering if he had actually visited a volcano because the realism of the molten lava was so realistic I could almost feel the heat. This is true skill and I don't think it could be taught, say, to a skilled decorator of pottery. The latter is a craftsperson with a skill that can be learnt by long practice.

Seimon Morris

A very enjoyable exhibition. I particularly enjoyed the light show, and of course the audio guide was up to your usual high standards, informative and beautifully narrated. Thank you.

Geoffrey Brown

Although I had seen Martin's paintings before, I thought this exhibition absolutely excellent. The hangings and the information seemed to me just right. Although I only caught the final minutes of the son et lumière finale, this struck me as a very effective way to get to the spirit of what the artist was about. Only downside was two mothers with toddlers who (understandably) wanted to run about and shout. I do think that gallery staff should intervene in the interests of all when this happens - which seems to be on the increase. A small gripe for a first-class event.

Winnie Chang

His paintings are phenomenal. Epic. I travelled through the intensity of colours, flied through the arches of Belshazzar's Feast, became a silent nymph observing Pan's chase. His mezzotints were particularly admired. The detail in the monochrome, some of them reminding me almost of Japanese anime; small details of shooting stars. However, I thought the show was very well orchestrated (thank you Martin) and all of a sudden I would cross a patch of colour and be reminded, why both compliment each other, and neither is better. I very much enjoyed sitting in the corner at the back and watching the light show, which I found fascinating (particularly the projections which animated hell) and dramatically comic. All in all, I have recommended the exhibition to friends and am planning to take some, when they are next in London.

Leza

Extremely worthwhile exhibition and fascinating to view first hand Martin's huge influence on popular culture. I was disappointed to read a negative account of the light show because in my opinion this definitely enhanced our visit. Some may argue that the paintings contain the power already in their own right but the light show gave a significant background to how John Martin as the touring artist was experienced in the music halls and theatres of Victorian England. This added another layer to the exhibition; to view the paintings and see the craftsmanship and skill of Martin's mastering of light and luminosity but also to have an experience of the time in which they were created and the reaction to them. I thought it obvious that a lot of research and time and effort had gone in to creating this and all 4 of us (all different ages from 28 to late 50s) thought it was fabulous. Art should be accessible and innovative ideas like this make it so; and importantly less aloof/highbrow. It helps capture the imagination of younger visitors and that can only ever be a great thing in an era where you are competing against computer games and the internet. The Tate curators are incredibly talented at what they do and this exhibition was hung and staged very well. Well done to all concerned and my thanks for an inspirational Saturday visit.

Andrew Hammond

Great to have the chance to see lots of John Martin's works up close - you really HAVE TO see these paintings in the flesh;reproductions simply can't do them justice. I couldn't care less whether an artist is fashionable or not,I'm just glad the Tate galleries show such a HUGE range of art.(Laurence Llewellyn Bowen said utterly ridiculous things on this issue on that "Lost Paintings" programme!) I love the immense depth of scenery in Martin's pictures,and the thrilling drama. I didn't care for the sound and light show though - completely unnecessary for pictures that are already SO dramatic,and I just wanted to be able to take time exploring the paintings in detail without being interrupted by all that nonsense. Glad to be able to leave a comment without having to join Facebook! Thanks Tate - for the exhibition AND not restricting the opportunity to comment to Facebook members!

TC

As an exhibition the experience was good. The size of the individual spaces, the hanging, the notes on the pictures, the lighting were all excellent. The sequencing of the exhibits showed there was a serious consideration of the way the visitor would learn about the artist and his works and there was also a cunning placement of pictures that would suggest the nature of things yet to be revealed. I didn't avail myself on the audio-guide as I find them invasive and distracting so maybe some of the questions I would have liked answered were dealt with there rather than on wall-mounted notices. I felt somewhat deprived of contextual information and was particularly concerned about the source of his architectural information, for some reason. Had he travelled extensively or (like Glenn Brown) were his sources other artists' images?

As for the works themselves .... I was not aware of Martin prior to the blurb being sent about this show and can't say I was overly impressed. I guess I would be one of the detractors if visiting a show in his day. He was clearly a technical master and his stamina at reworking his complex images in several different forms is impressive. He also had a great competence at handling lighting effects. But, as stated already, stamina, skill and complexity do not necessarily make for good art. There always needs to be a sense of the artist having something personal to say and, with Martin, I couldn't feel it, I'm afraid. His pictures also seemed to have an idiosyncratic composition. Many appeared to have a "hole" or "void" in the middle of the lower half of the image which often seemed rather vacant. Sometimes it was the opening of a chasm or some such peril but at others it had no clear purpose and simply pushed the detailed parts of the picture to the edge. Strangely I was quite taken by some of the "lesser" works in the last room including the watercolours of the Thames and the pictures from the Isle of Man.

Like some other comment writers here I thought the "performance" associated with the Triptych was unnecessary and unhelpful. I would however have valued a final room that explored his purported influence on later illustrators and on film and theatre designers.

ian wilson

I brought a small asc group and they really enjoyed all the bluster, especially the simulated lantern show with lightening and thunder!

Andrea

It was interesting to see contemporary light and sound installations iterated within this exhibition and I thought it worked well within Martin's work. It was helpful to see the exhibit in a chronological order as one got an idea for the artists development throughout his career. Lovely exhibition.

Stephen C

Like a few others above the paintings struck me as oddly modern in some ways. Belshazzar's Feast put me in mind of a Ridley Scott movie, and many of the others would be perfectly at home on the dustjacket of a JRR Tolkien novel. I suppose that might not be critical praise exactly, but I enjoyed them.

Patxi

The exhibition was amazing!!

d.mcardle

well its tricky isn't it,tricky trick tricky.By 1830-3 'Principles of Geology' had been published and geologists had abandoned a literal Biblical account of earth's development. Obviously Martin's 'Earth' is pretty sci-fi,a landscape where Satan or the angels are about to wake up a la Milton's Paradise Lost (1667) What appeals to some people is the apparent skill(a favorite hot potato of art lovers everywhere !) This skill thing is the big one really isn't it ; if you look at a Van Eyck for example you can be reminded of the insides of a Swiss watch,blimey how do they do that ,but its virtually painting by numbers. Some,say, french polishers are pretty 'skillfull' too, there are lots of skills ; Brunel and his marvels etc . But there is something about this skill on the wall that bowls people over in quite a different way ; the glory that was Rome syndrome maybe ? dunno. (wonder if he went for that random factor rock formation technique of throwing a paint rag ,as Renaissance artists are said to have done ((or is that an Urbano myth)) or if he tried laboriously to stylize and that is WHY his paintings appear surreal ,with rock formations/sky/sea etc there is also a lot of erm arbitrary leeway ,whereas with a figure/face it has to sit right unless it is being USED as an architectonic,as in Picasso.

Nicky Binder

Mmmmm.... Love him or loathe his work (not quite decided after one spin through the exhibition)this is an exhibition that will divide opinion... Born in Northumberland....hence the huge rugged terrains and mixed weather in his pics. That coupled with being a devout Christian possibly helps to explain the immense Old Testament sweep of his work...was he in awe or just plain scared of what lay ahead? His attention to detail and scale is a revelation! (no pun intended) Sewers??....a multi skiller for his time no less...bravo! Railways for London??...someone should have sat up and listened to the man! Add an insane brother for good measure and 4 deaths in his family in one year and you have a man for all seasons. As for the fab tryptich including a Son et Lumiere moment...cutting edge for its time... I'm surprised he didn't cut a record too...but that's another Martyn...

So...what would have been really useful? Well...more biography on JM,his contemporary artists of his time(JMW Turner?) Just maybe.

Mark Cawthra

It's true that Martin's technique is awe-inspiring, but not so much as his imagination. While it's difficult to appreciate in modern Britain the extent of the Christian fervour that goes into the desire to realise images on this scale you can't help but be impressed by the skill. But the end result is stylised and surreal I agree. I'm intrigued as to the mind of an artist like this. Whatr the hell was the man like I wonder, because his work seems to me as obsessive in its execution as Dadd's, and we all know about poor old Richard...

Carolyn Quillfeldt

I loved the exhibition. Several paintings reminded me of artwork for the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. If he were living today, he might have been designing computer games and cgi for films. I too would have like more background information on his life and cultural influences. Obviously his work is sometimes lurid, filmic, fantastical and melodramatic, occasionally "vulgar" but hey, so what? It must have been thrilling in his day and is sxciting now.

Carol Wilcox

The concept of the Sublime was certainly well illustrated in Martin's huge canvases, with the inclusion of tiny figures against such awe-inspiring and terrifying backdrops. I was particularly interested to see Glenn Browns "transcription" of one of Martin's paintings. I was a bit critical of some of the (what I felt to be) unnecessary detail in the foreground of many of Martin's canvases, but there is no denying that the effect of these paintings was on the whole mind-blowing, at least for me!

David Male

Have returned for a second visit as I enjoyed the first visit so much. I took my daughter who is studying Fine Art at Goldsmiths and she commented it was the best exhibition she had seen this year. His large paintings were amazing and I particularly loved Belshazzars Feast. My only minor criticism was I would have appreciated some more commnetary on Martins life and how his painitings refelceted the religious ferment of the time with various revivials etc.

Simon cox

I popped in tge other day as it was closing, so a brief visit. The paintings are stunning & the hanging excellent to give them space to breathe. There was one - an early painting, where the text mentioned why he used the colours he did - in order to counter act the RA wall colour?? Forgive me for not knowing the title or the exact text. It would have been interesting to have a visual idea as to what that would have looked like. How? I don't know! I have to say I wasn't taken with the dramatised section of the triptych. The music was far too loud (& I'm not old!). So much so it spilled out into other rooms & spoilt my enjoyment elsewhere. Also, I don't think what you were trying to do quite worked. Who put it together? I've worked extensively in the theatre & for a soundscape like that, I feel someone with experience in the son et lumière may have done a more effecting job. However I'll try to return with more time.

dai.jeffries@nt...

Enjoyed the show very much, particularly the son et lumiere with the triptych. I actually prefer his earlier paintings to his later more 'painterly' ones. The fall of Babylon is magnificent but the smaller canvases of Syrinx and Pan are delightful.

Susan Hilton

I found the Exhibition most interesting. What fascinated me was the way in which 19th century religious beliefs and mores must have contributed to his popularity as an artist whilst at the same time reinforcing such beliefs.

Pages