John Martin exhibition banner

‘Almost every branch of my profession’
The young artist, c.1807–1820s

John Martin was not destined to be an artist. He was born into a poor working-class family in Northumberland, and was apprenticed to a coach-painter in Newcastle but he harboured greater ambitions. He received some training from a local drawing master before setting out to London in 1806 hoping to set himself up as an artist. According to his autobiography (1849), here he ‘supported myself and my family by pursuing almost every branch of my profession – teaching – painting small oil pictures, glass and enamel paintings, watercolour drawings’.

This opening section of the exhibition includes a variety of works from this early part of his career, and several of the major paintings which were created especially to be included in the London art exhibitions. These were designed to have striking visual impact in the context of those crowded public displays, and they established Martin’s reputation as a painter of the Sublime (the terrible and awesome). Although these early pictures were generally well-received, there are signs of the repetitiveness, sensationalism and craftsman-like painterly style that were to draw criticism from commentators.