John Martin

The Plains of Heaven


Not on display

John Martin 1789–1854
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1988 × 3067 mm
frame: 2415 × 3485 × 175 mm
Bequeathed by Charlotte Frank in memory of her husband Robert Frank 1974


This is the second picture in Martin's great triptych, known as the Judgement Series. Along with the other two vast panels, The Last Judgement and The Great Day of His Wrath (both Tate, T01927 and N05613), it was inspired by St John the Divine's fantastic account of the Last Judgement given in Revelation, the last book of the New Testament. Martin's aim in producing this series was typically Romantic: to express the sublime, apocalyptic force of nature and the helplessness of man to combat God's will.

Of the three panels, this is Martin's most serene vision. In the central panel, The Last Judgement, he separates good and evil by a great chasm, into which the evil are falling. On the far side are the good, assembling in 'the plains of heaven'. The landscape in which they have gathered continues into this picture, creating a vision of natural harmony. Martin included a number of poets and artists among the good, who are gathered like white clouds on the crest of the hill in the foreground of the picture. Behind them stretches the deep blue expanse of a heavenly alpine lake, filled by the rushing water of the distant falls, and surrounded by majestic mountain scenery.

Martin has recreated the paradise referred to in Chapter 21 of Revelation: 'And I saw a new heaven and a new earth…And I, John, saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband' (Revelation 21:1-2). 'And he carried me away in the spirit to a great and high mountain, and shewed me that great city, the holy Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God, Having the glory of God: and her light was like unto a stone most precious, even like a jasper stone, clear as crystal' (Revelation 21:10-11). The luminous city of Jerusalem is just visible in the background of the picture, floating in the dream-like atmosphere of the heavenly landscape.

The three pictures in the triptych became famous in the years after Martin's death and were toured all over England and America. They were described as 'The most sublime and extraordinary pictures in the world valued at 8000 guineas' (quoted in Wilson, p.76). Many mezzotints of the pictures were sold, but the vastness and theatricality of Martin's visions now appeared outmoded to the mid-Victorians, and the paintings themselves failed to find a buyer. By the twentieth century, Martin's work had fallen into obscurity and he became known as 'Mad Martin'. In 1935 the triptych was sold for seven pounds and the separate panels dispersed. It was later reunited in the Tate collection in 1974.

Further reading:
Simon Wilson, Tate Gallery - an illustrated companion, London 1990, p.76.
Christopher Wood, Victorian Painting, London 1999, pp.19-20.

Frances Fowle
December 2000

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Display caption

This is one of three paintings painted by Martin inspired by the Book of Revelation, the other two being The Last Judgement and The Great Day of His Wrath. All three depict scenes following the end of the world, in this case a vision of a new heaven and earth ‘coming down from God out of Heaven prepared as a bride is adorned for her husband’. Following their first exhibition in London in 1853, the paintings were continually on tour, appearing in theatres, music halls, commercial and civic spaces across Britain and beyond.

Gallery label, November 2016

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Catalogue entry

T01928 The Plains of Heaven c.1851-3 Inscribed 'J. Martin 185 [3?)' b.r.

Oil on canvas, 78 ¼ x 120 ¾ (198. 7x306. 7)

Bequeathed by Charlotte Frank in memory of her husband Robert Frank 1974

Coil: By descent in the artist's family to T. C. H. Martin (see below); sold Robinson, Fisher and Harding 17 October 1935 (116, and 115 as 'An Allegorical Landscape'); ...; bt. Robert Frank 1947; bequeathed to Mrs Robert Frank 1953

Exh: Victoria Rooms, Grey Street, Newcastle-upon- Tyne 1854, and elsewhere (see below); The Victorian Era, Earls Court 1897 (317,319); ?Montreal Biennial 1906; Exhibition recording Tyneside's contribution to art, Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle-upon Tyne 1951 (169, repr., 171, detail repr.); Whitechapel Art Gallery 1953 (37,36)
Engr: Charles Mottram, published 1 January 1857 by Thomas Maclean, 26 Haymarket, London, and Williams, Stevens, Williams and Co, New York; mezzotint published 1870 by C. Mitchell, 30 College Green, Bristol

Repr: William Feaver, The Art of John Martin, 1975, figs 147-9, 155, 157

Lit: A. Cleveland, Coxe Impressions of England 1851, 1851; Leopold Martin, 'Reminiscences. ..' in Newcastle Weekly Chronicle supplement, part XIV, 6 April 1889 (no. 6507); George Wilson, The Martin Judgement Pictures, n.d. (c. 1890?); Mary L. Pendered, John Martin, Painter: His Life and Times, 1923, pp.245-56; Ruthven Todd, Tracks in the Snow, 1946 p.96; Thomas Balston, John Martin, 1947, pp.233-6, 242-9; Christopher Johnstone, John Martin, 1974, pp.26-7; William Feaver, The Art of John Martin, 1975, pp.188-204.

These paintings[T01927 and T01928], which with 'The Great Day of His Wrath' (Tate Gallery N05613) compose a triptych, are the last major works Martin produced before his death in 1854, are generally considered among his most important achievements, and are thought by some critics to be his masterpiece.

The subjects are taken from the Book of Revelation. 'The Last Judgment' illustrates the central event of the Book, and Martin compiled his scene from various passages in the narrative. From chapter 4: 'a throne was set in heaven, and one sat on the throne. ..and round about the throne were four and twenty seats: and upon the seats I saw four and twenty elders sitting, clothed in white raiment: and they had on their heads crowns of gold'. From chapter 8, there are the four angels who have sounded their trumpets after the opening of the seventh seal, and 'an angel flying through the midst of heaven, saying with a loud voice, Woe. the inhabitors of the earth. ..' From chapter 9, there is the star which falls from heaven and creates a bottomless pit: 'and there arose a smoke out of the pit, as the smoke of a great furnace'. In the right middle distance there are the armies of Gog and Magog, 'the number of whom is as the sand of the sea' (chapter 20). The damned, on the right, include richly dressed women, notably Herodias's daughter and the whore of Babylon, lawyers and churchmen who have sought only worldly wealth; they are shown in attitudes of despair and physical pain in an atmosphere of destruction. Martin also includes a contemporary detail, a railway train, its carriages marked 'London', 'Paris', and so on, plunging into an abyss. The saved, at God's right hand (that is, on the spectator's left), are anonymous figures of virtuous women and innocent children, true and pure lovers, martyrs and philanthropists, and, in the foreground, portraits of the famous. As described in chapter 20, 'the dead, small and great, stand before God'. An engraved key was published in 1855 (by Leggatt, Haward and Leggatt of 79 Cornhill), identifying the principal figures, among whom are Thomas More, Wesley, Canute, Colbert, Washington, Copernicus, Newton, Watt, Chaucer, Tasso, Corneille and Shakespeare. The great men are ranged in a timeless tableau in the manner of James Barry's 'Elysium', the sixth wall painting in the series in the Great Room of the Society of Arts mainly executed between 1779 and 1783. Like Barry, Martin reproduces the best known images of the famous: their portraits of Raphael, Rubens, Leonardo, Michelangelo and Titian, for example, are taken from the same sources. Feaver (p.191) calls 'The Last Judgment' 'Martin's most ambitious composition. ..a recital of all the alternatives that had concerned him throughout his career'.

Intended to hang on the left of 'The Last Judgment', 'The Plains of Heaven' continues the composition and amplifies the theme of salvation. Martin imagines the paradise referred to in chapter 21: 'I saw a new heaven and a new earth. ..the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband'. There are also similarities with the description in chapter 15 of 'a sea of glass mingled with fire: and them that had gotten the victory over the beast. ..stand on the sea of glass, having the harps of God. And they sing the song of Moses. ..' According to Pendered (p.245), the painting was originally titled 'All Things Made New'. The landscape owes much to Turner's panoramic Italian views, and its sweeping movements of plateaux and foliage, and its serene glacial distances, appear in several of Martin's watercolours of around 1850, such as 'The Traveller' and 'Joshua spying out the Land of Canaan' (Manx Museum and private collection; Feaver figs 143 and 144). It may also be compared with 'The Celestial City and River of Bliss' of 1841 (private collection; Feaver fig 125). Leopold Martin dismisses the suggestion that 'The Plains of Heaven' depicts an actual view, such as those discussed by Balston (pp.247-8): it was 'a poetic and ideal landscape-one from the mind only'.

Before the idea of a triptych had been conceived, Martin planned the composition of 'The Last Judgment'. This was at some time before 1845 to judge from an outline drawing in pencil and ink, signed and dated that year (formerly coli. Ruthven Todd; repr. Todd, plate 3Th). At that time as Feaver suggests (p.190), it was to be paired with a scene of the Crucifixion (Todd, plate 37a). Feaver also draws an important analogy between 'The Last Judgment' composition and that of the watercolour study for 'Christ's Glorious Corning' (pp.19D-l, fig 145), a design probably intended as one of the illustrations to the New Testament published in 1835 and 1836. But Martin does not seem to have begun the painting of 'The Last Judgment' until early in 1851. In a letter of 14 March 1851, quoted by Balston (p.233), Martin thanked the Rev. Robert Montgomery for copies of two of his poems, in which the artist had marked several passages 'most happily applicable to my picture'. Although both poems- The OmnIPresence of the Deity (1828) and The Messiah (1832)-deal with the contrasting faces of the blessed and the damned, it is not possible to cite the specific passages which Martin found relevant to his painting. Soon after Easter the Rev. Coxe recorded that 'we called upon Martin. He was engaged on a picture of the Last Judgment full of his mannerisms. ..' (quoted by Balston, p.234). The painting was presumably well under way by 7 June, when he signed an agreement with the publisher and printseller Thomas Maclean entitling him to have an engraving made by an artist approved by Martin, and to exhibit the painting as publicity for subscriptions to the print edition. Martin was to receive one third of the net profits. The painting must have been finished and sent to the engraver, Charles Mottram, by the end of 1851, for Martin wrote to Maclean on 30 January 1852: 'I have been daily hoping to see the proving of The Last Judgment, and begin to be anxious, for time wears on' (quoted by Balston, p.234).

It is possible that Martin had begun the two companion pieces by the end of 1851, and on 23 June 1852 he entered into another agreement, on the same terms, for their engraving. Pendered states that he was working on 'The Plains of Heaven' just before he left London for Douglas, Isle of Man, in October 1853. Leopold Martin's assertion that the paintings went with the artist to Douglas and were worked on 'up to the moment of his attack of paralysis at the end of the year 1853' seems, in view of the size of the pictures, inaccurate. Martin died on 17 February 1854, seven days after the pictures were first exhibited, and there was a suggestion, in the Athenaeum obituary (25 February 1854, p.247) and in the Art Journal (April 1854, p.119), that the paintings had been left unfinished. This was challenged by J. L. Fairless in a letter to the Athenaeum (4 March, p.80, quoted by Feaver p.236, n.37) in which he pointed out that the artist had signed the pictures (in his last weeks, by all accounts, the artist was unable to write) and had allowed them to tour the country as publicity for the prints. The latter point may not be strictly relevant, as the publisher Maclean, although he needed Martin's permission, owned two-thirds of the exhibition rights, and moreover Martin was perhaps by this time incapable of objecting. Fairless adds that 'it will, perhaps, be well to correct this little error, for although at present it seems a trifling circumstance, it may afterwards be matter of considerable importance.' Pendered, presumably on the evidence of the artist's friend Ralph Thomas, states that the pictures were not finished. Examination has revealed no evidence that the paintings were completed by another hand, and the less detailed parts of 'The Last Judgment' are similar to those in other exhibited works by Martin. Several areas in the foreground of 'The Last Judgment' are made up of small pieces of paper, stuck on to the canvas and painted over, but these changes were made by Martin himself.

The first recorded exhibition of the paintings was in the artist's home town, Newcastle, at the Victoria Rooms in Grey Street, where they were shown 'for a few days only' from 10 February to 4 March 1854, according to advertisements in the Newcastle Courant (10, 17,24 February, Nos. 9349-51). This show must have been intended as a prelude to the tour of provincial cities, which included Oxford, Birmingham, Leicester, Bristol and Chester. Pendered quotes from the local newspaper reviews, extracts from which were used as part of the publicity when the paintings finally reached London and 'were exhibited in the Great Hall of Commerce, Threadneedle Street, in 1855. They were advertised in a pamphlet as 'the most sublime and extraordinary pictures in the world. ..valued at eight thousand guineas'. The Morning Post of 3 May 1855 greatly admired them: 'the simple grandeur of the conception, the broad artistic arrangement, and the wonderfully inventive faculty in detail. ..will serve to place the fame of Martin in a much higher position than any of his former labours'. The Art Journal of June 1855 was less enthusiastic: 'No modern artist except Martin would ever have entertained the idea of painting such subjects, and it would have been well for his reputation if he had left them alone; they are far beyond the stretch of finite intelligence, and of a character too awful to be made themes of the painter's art ... Martin seems to have allowed his imagination to revel amid its wildest fancies till it extended into the region of burleque, and almost into that of profanity'. Balston quotes these and other contemporary reviews (pp.252-6).

The Mottram engravings were not published until 1 January 1857; the venture was a success to judge from the sale to James Plimpton of the small remaining stock in 1860 (Balston, p.246). According to lain Bain (introduction to catalogue of the Exhibition of Victorian Prints, Maas Gallery 1971), Plimpton continued to produce prints from the plates, and according to Feaver (p.236, n.17), the plates are now in the possession of Thomas Ross Ltd. The paintings toured the United States in 1857, according to Pendered, and were shown again in London in 1860, at Mabley's in the Strand, and noticed by the Art Journal (November 1860, p.350) which liked the pictures no better at a second view. Mrs Henry Wood relates a visit to see the paintings at 'Lynneborough' in her novel East Lynne, published in 1861 (quoted by Malston, p.247). They continued to tour Britain at least until 1872, when they were shown at Hexham, Northumberland, the nearest suitable town to Martin's birthplace, Haydon Bridge. George Wilson's undated pamphlet, published in London, advertises another show in London: his statement that 'again, after a lapse of over twenty years, are John Martin's sublime Judgement Pictures exhibited to the British Public' suggests a date around 1890.

The subsequent ownership and history of the pictures are far from clear. The paintings were not mentioned in Martin's will, and presumably their ownership was affected by the agreement with the publisher Maclean. According to Balston, they were held in trust for Martin's wife and afterwards for his daughters. But Leopold Martin states that the pictures were bequeathed by the artist to his cousin, the wife of Thomas Wilson. Pendered also records that the artist's grandson had told her of this bequest. In Balston's manuscript additons to his book (Victoria and Albert Museum Library), he notes that 'before his death, according to Thomas Hunt Martin's pencil corrections to Pendered's Life, Martin had given the Judgment Pictures to Mrs Wilson in gratitude for her hospitality and care'. Martin's cousin was Matia Thompson, who had married the son of the Thomas Wilson who was Martin's host on the Isle of Man and whose family nursed Martin during his final illness. The matter is complicated by the fact there was another marital link between the Martins and the Wilsons -the elder Wilson's wife was Martin's wife's sister. By about 1872, the pictures were in the possession of the artist's son Charles; he may have inherited them through the Wilson family, as he had martied the elder Wilson's daughter Mary Ann. George Wilson-presumably either Matia's husband or, more likely, her son-claims ownership of the pictures in his pamphlet. But it was Charles Martin's son, Thomas Carew Hunt Martin, who lent the paintings to the 1897 exhibiton at Earls Court.

By the end of the century interest in the Judgment pictures had waned considerably, and Balston describes their neglect (p.248): 'early in the 'nineties they were hanging in a dingy room at the Alexandra Palace: the late Mr Pearl Cross, the antique dealer, remembered that in his boyhood he and his friends used them as targets for their catapults'. Balston also records that T. C. H. Martin mortgaged them. Pendered recorded in 1923 that since 1900 they had hung on the staircase at the Dore Gallery, and-after the gallery closed they presumably went into storage. Balston continues by stating that by 1923 the paintings had been removed from their frames and stretchers, rolled up, and stored in a warehouse. In 1935 they were sold at auction, where they are supposed to have fetched under seven pounds, although no record survives. One of the buyers remembers overhearing at the sale that someone intended to buy one of the pictures in order to cut it up to decorate a screen, and he determined to save it from this fate. However Balston (pp.248-9) records of 'The Last Judgment' that 'a lady into whose possession it came, thought fit to cut it into four strips to decorate a screen, and it was not until this year (1947) that it was acquired by a private collector [presumably Robert Frank], who has spared no pains or expense in restoting it'. Balston's account is borne out by examination of the canvas of 'The Last Judgment' which clearly reveals three vertical joins. In Todd's book of 1946, however, that picture is stated to be in the collection of Mr Nan Kivel, while 'The Plains of Heaven' is stated to be in the collection of Lady Hartis.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1974-6: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1978


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