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‘A bold experiment on the public taste’
The blockbuster paintings, c.1816–1820s

This room features some of the large paintings that Martin showed in the major London art exhibitions in the late 1810s and 1820s. These made his reputation as the master of a new kind of spectacular popular art, ‘a bold experiment on the public taste’ as one critic put it.

First exhibited in 1816, Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still showed Martin venturing into the kind of ambitious landscape painting pioneered by Turner. The Fall of Babylon 1819 and Belshazzar’s Feast 1820 were more innovative: sensational biblical subjects set in vast architectural spaces. Crowds flocked to see the spectacle and these pictures rivalled popular entertainment such as panoramas and magic lantern shows.

Joshua and Belshazzar’s Feast were bought in 1821 by Martin’s former employer who sent them on a profitable nationwide tour. Martin made no money from this, and in 1822 he mounted his own one-man show in London. This showcased his latest blockbuster, The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Martin wanted his pictures to be taken seriously as works of art, but his critical reputation was tainted by growing accusations of populism and bad taste.

The Conservation of The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum

In the early hours of the 7 January 1928, the Tate Gallery experienced a disastrous flood. The Thames embankment ruptured, and waters surged into the basement and lower galleries, submerging significant portions of the library, archive and art collections. John Martin’s Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum was one of the pictures badly damaged. The artist’s reputation was at its lowest ebb, and the work was dismissed as ‘completely ruined’.

When the painting was rediscovered decades later about one-fifth of the canvas was missing entirely and the surviving fragments suffered from numerous tears, flaking paint and obscuring layers of dirt and discoloured varnish. Consequently, recent conservation treatment initially focused on stabilising the remaining portions and removing the discoloured varnish.

The missing part of the picture was more of a challenge. Unusually, we have Martin’s own replica (also on display here) as well as his outline etching and a photographic record from before the flood. It was therefore possible to recreate the missing portion without resorting to compositional invention. A new piece of canvas was primed and inserted into the loss and painted to imitate the original. The intention has been to ensure that the modern interventions remain apparent and reversible, while allowing the picture’s overall spatial construction and visual drama to be appreciated in full.