The Art of the Sublime

ISBN 978-1-84976-387-5

John Martin’s Last Judgement Triptych: The Apocalyptic Sublime in the Age of Spectacle

Martin Myrone

John Martin 'The Last Judgement' 1853
John Martin
The Last Judgement 1853
Tate T01927

John Martin 'The Great Day of His Wrath' 1851-3
John Martin
The Great Day of His Wrath 1851–3
Tate N05613

John Martin 'The Plains of Heaven' 1851-3
John Martin
The Plains of Heaven 1851–3
Tate T01928

The pictures

This set of three large paintings was the final artistic enterprise of the most celebrated and controversial painter of biblical disaster in the nineteenth century, John Martin (1789–1854). The series was completed only months before his death. Sent out on an exhibition tour that encompassed the whole of Britain, as well as Ireland, North America and eventually Australia, they became the most widely seen of his pictures and reached an audience which may have numbered in the millions. They were also reproduced as engravings which were distributed worldwide, extending their reach even further. Relaying the end of the world prophesied by St John the Divine in the biblical book of Revelation through vastly conceived and catastrophically overwhelming landscape scenery, they have been cast in modern scholarship as among the exemplars of the nineteenth century apocalyptic sublime.
The first picture, The Last Judgement (Fig.1, Tate T01927), which was completed before the others and originally shown as the centrepiece in gallery displays, offers a visual synopsis of the triptych’s themes, with God determining the ultimate fate of the good and the wicked at the end of the world. The earth itself is shown being torn apart, with a terrific rift at the heart of the composition and a sickly red sun weirdly illuminating the landscape. According to the lengthy description and key published to accompany the display of the paintings in the 1850s, ‘The Supreme’ is represented in the light that illuminates ‘the whole of the heavenly scene’, with Christ enthroned accompanied by angels, and the Celestial City and the Plains of Heaven rising behind him: ‘The book of life has been opened, and the quick and the dead being judged according to their works, the avenging angel hurls the bolts of Heaven upon the condemned.’1 These are shown to the right,
overwhelmed by the earthquake, and swept down to the abyss into the bottomless pit ... Some crushed by the falling mountains, or blasted by the lightning, and others abandoned to grief, horror, and despair at their eternal doom ... War, with its hideous engines and vain trophies, mammon, avarice, usury, worldly pride, pomp, hypocrisy, pretended religion, false sanctity, false humility, and all sins adverse to Christian doctrines await destruction’.
Prominent in the foreground is the Whore of Babylon ‘arrayed in purple and scarlet colour’, and a Catholic priest falling to the ground before her, referred to in the booklet as ‘False sanctity and false humility. Pretended religion and worldly vanity. Avarice, usury, mammon’.2

To the left, under the angels sounding the trumpets that herald the end of the world, are the redeemed, made up of ‘The high-caste Indian clasps the low-caste African, the Chinese, the European, the American, holy martyrs, the high and low – the greatest and the meanest – of every age, country and station’, but featuring thirty-four named individuals from history including, as an early critic remarked, a disproportionate number of ‘painters and poets’.3 Identifiable from familiar historical portraits among this crowd are, among others, the English king Alfred the Great, the scientists Galileo Galilei and Isaac Newton, the philosopher John Locke, the first President of the United States George Washington, the writers William Shakespeare and John Milton, and the artists Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael. Behind them are the walls of the ‘Holy City, Jerusalem’.
The two further pictures were explained by Martin through scriptural quotation only, rather than through descriptive prose. The Great Day of his Wrath (Fig.2, Tate N05613) offers a vision of the ultimate catastrophe:
And I beheld when he had opened the sixth seal, and lo, there was a great earthquake.
And the Heaven departed as a scroll when it is rolled together; and every mountain and island were moved out of their places;
And the kings of the earth, and the great men, and the rich men, and every bondsman, and every freeman, hid themselves in the dens, and in the rocks of the mountains.
And said to the mountains of rocks, Fall on us, and hide us from the face of Him that sitteth on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb.
For the great day of His wrath is come; and who shall be able to stand?4
The Plains of Heaven (Fig.3, Tate T01928) presents the searing vision of the new world, which arises after the terrible destruction of the last judgement:
And I saw the new Heaven and a new Earth: for the first Heaven and the first Earth were passed away; and there was no more sea.
And I, John, saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of Heaven prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.
And I heard a voice out of Heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people, and God himself shall be with them and be their God.
And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain; for the former things are passed away.
And He that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new.5
The pictorial language used by Martin to render visible this new paradise was the wholly conventional and familiar one of classical landscape painting on the model of the seventeenth-century French artist Claude Lorrain (1600–1682), pursued in the modern age most influentially by J.M.W. Turner (1775–1851). A dark foreground with dense foliage rising to the left and to the right in a balanced formation gives way to an expansive landscape view with rivers, lakes and waterfalls, characterised by bands of warm and cool colour and dissolving into a blinding golden light which consumes the towering mountain scenery in the far distance. Martin had a track record of producing such conventionalised landscapes, with examples dating from the beginning of his career, although his renditions of Claudian scenery were regularly criticised for being more brightly and crudely coloured than their prototype.6 Meanwhile, The Last Judgement, is, to quote the view of the pioneering John Martin scholar William Feaver, ‘a recital of all the alternatives that had concerned him throughout his career’, with the panorama of a luminous paradise and ideal city set against the black horror of hell and overwhelming catastrophe.7 The latter themes had been widely viewed as his particular specialism since he first achieved celebrity with a succession of pictures of biblical and natural disaster exhibited in the late 1810s and early 1820s. The panicking figures, convulsed crowds and the immense destroying angel on show here are to be found in a range of earlier compositions created by Martin in paint and mezzotint. The Great Day of his Wrath repeats the vortex-like compositional form that dominated his major pictorial compositions in the latter part of his career, and which had been tested out in smaller watercolours in the 1830s and in the backgrounds of his disaster paintings and mezzotints of the 1820s. As a critic in the Manchester Times wrote on seeing this painting, ‘we are reminded of his earlier works’.8
So, all three pictures traded on familiar pictorial formulae. Indeed, much criticism from around the time of his death in 1854, and in response to the extended tour of these pictures, turned on the idea that his art was formulaic and limited: ‘If Martin was not after his manner sublime, he was nothing. Unless he was surrounded by clouds, lightning flashes, or gorgeous Assyrian palaces, or delineating some convulsion, or awful catastrophe of nature, his efforts were puerile and fade.’9 There was also some sense that these formulaic pictures belonged to an earlier age; Martin himself was tending to appear more like an oddity than a major figure in the story of British art. The Manchester Guardian, reviewing his works in general in 1857, wrote that:
He has been called the inventor of the material-sublime in painting. He seems to have been possessed of a singular feeling for space and vastness, whether expressed in buildings by the heaping of terrace upon terrace or the drawing out of an infinite sweep of plain as a preternatural eye might take it from the height of an Alp with multitudinous lines of forest or immeasurable recession of rocky side-scenes. No wonder that these strange works, more like the oppressive infinities of dreams than the inventions of a waking painter, startled and perplexed the public on their first appearance. People were puzzled what to think of them, whether as the grandest things that ever were conceived by human imagination, or as the mere dreams of a mad architect. They were neither the one nor the other, but the outward expression of a very peculiar mind.10
The tendency to view Martin’s paintings more as psychological curiosities and as exercises in the all-too literal and obvious extravagance denigrated by the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834) as the ‘material sublime’ grew after this point. The Last Judgement pictures may rightly be seen as a culmination of a career, but there was, as Feaver identified, a kind of belatedness as well. They were ‘Survivals from the age of phantasmagorias and the Picturesque in the age of the calotype and of Thomas Seddon’s on-the-spot view of Jerusalem and the Valley of the Jehosephat of 1854 [Tate N00563]’.11 If in their pictorial language these spoke of a conventionalised landscape vision that seemed out of keeping with the most advanced tendencies in art of the 1850s (photography and Pre-Raphaelite ‘realism’), their exhibition history and critical reception points to their participation in a determinedly modern world of art, one in which notions of aesthetic value and cultural access were being radically overhauled under the influence of commerce, accelerated communication networks and globalisation. Their character as sublime enterprises, dealing with sights and experiences at the very limits of human understanding, gave them unusual currency in this expanding realm of visual spectacle.

The age of spectacle

Although he was, by nineteenth-century standards, becoming an elderly man by the late 1840s, and although he appears to have secured some degree of financial security on the back of an engineering patent awarded to him in 1847, the Last Judgement triptych was put together by Martin as a determinedly commercial project. In June 1851, by which time The Last Judgement itself must have been well advanced, he entered a contractual agreement with the London publisher Thomas MacLean (1788–1875) covering a proposed engraving which would reproduce the picture. A further contract covering the engraving of the two other pictures in the sequence was drawn up in June 1852, and, as an admirer was at that time writing expectantly of seeing his ‘splendid triad of pictures all together in some well-lighted Exhibition room’, it seems that they were well advanced.12 The contracts establish that MacLean and Martin shared the copyright of the proposed engravings, and the publisher had the right ‘of exhibiting the pictures at his own expense at such places and during such periods as the said parties shall agree for the purpose of obtaining subscribers to the said engravings’, though the profits from any ticket sales would be shared with the painter.13
The prints were not in the event to be issued until 1857, and Martin’s disabling stroke in November 1853, while with relatives in the Isle of Man, led to reports that the pictures were left unfinished at that point, something that was robustly disputed for many years after.14 All three pictures were, in fact, out on display before Martin’s final illness (he died while remaining on the Isle of Man in February 1854). The Last Judgement had been put on show, on its own, by MacLean at his London gallery in June 1853.15 Already by that point some form of explanatory text was available, because it was reported that ‘With the descriptive key in hand, the picture may be profitably studied for hours’.16 The three pictures were out on tour around the country in the autumn, and was an instant hit with the public. The show was reputedly seen by 50,000 people in Glasgow alone, and news of this exciting new visual spectacle had spread as far as Australia before it was shown in Edinburgh in the November of that year.17
In the ensuing years the pictures undertook what must be one of the most strenuous tour schedules in art history, facilitated, presumably, by the huge expansion of the rail network in the previous decade. The tour is documented in advertisements and reports which proliferated in the local press. In May 1854 they were briefly on show in Hull, where a local writer reported that ‘In York they were visited by 10,000 persons, at 6d. each; in Glasgow, by 50,000’ while lamenting that ‘in Hull, as yet, not more than about 1,000 persons have examined them!’.18 The pictures went on to Oxford, Newcastle, Leeds and Manchester, before appearing ‘For A Short Time Only’ at Hill’s Galleries in Edinburgh in March 1855, at which time the claim was made that they had already been seen by ‘upwards of 2,000,000 Visitors’.19 The ‘overcrowding of the rooms’ at Manchester had reportedly been so bad that, to avoid disappointment, a return visit was promised.20 They were displayed in ‘The Great Hall of Commerce’ in the City of London from May 1855, and ‘after much noisy puffing’ they were transferred to an exhibition room in the West End.21 The earliest surviving copy of the descriptive catalogue comes from that date, and featured a lengthy description of the subject of The Last Judgement, and the relevant scriptural quotes for the other two pictures, presumably as provided by Martin himself, as well as a eulogy on the artist and the announcement of the publication of the prints with a full schedule of prices.22 In August 1855 they were being displayed by John R. Isaac of Liverpool, who ‘finding his own Galleries too small’ had hired ‘the Exhibition Rooms, Old Post-Office’ where they could be seen for 6d, or repeatedly using a season ticket priced at 2s 6d.23 By September they were in Huddersfield, receiving a critical notice from the local art critic, and then Bradford. A single-sheet flier for the exhibition of pictures of the ‘Last Judgment, etc., by John Martin, at the Saloon, St George’s Hall, Bradford’ dating presumably to September 1855 must be an exceptionally rare survival of the kind of ephemeral marketing materials that must have been produced to accompany the exhibition around the country.24 At the end of January 1856, while the pictures were on show in Preston, the news broke locally that the pictures were about to be shown in Sheffield, and the expectant population of Blackburn had to be informed that because of this double-booking the pictures would not be coming to their city.25 The pictures were unveiled at the Mechanics Institute in Sheffield at the beginning of February, although within a week ‘Owing to the many Hundreds of applications to Inspect the three Grand PICTURES’ they were removed to a larger venue, the Temperance Hall.26 They went over to Dublin in March 1856, but by that May they were again on display in Manchester, together with Charles Martin’s portrait of the artist (1854; Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle), and then in June they were in Liverpool.27 Back on display in London, a concerted campaign of newspaper notices announced that the pictures were to be shipped to America.28 They were on display in the upstairs gallery on Broadway of the print publishers Williams, Stevens, Williams & Co in the winter of 1856–7.29
MacLean’s reproductive prints were published simultaneously in New York and London on 1 January 1857, with the proofs being put swiftly on show at printsellers around the world.30 The American art historian Gerald Carr has indicated that the pictures were shown in America’s Midwest later in 1857, presumably as part of a more extensive tour which has yet to be fully reconstructed, and the pictures were not definitely back on show in London until summer 1860.31 However, their heyday was perhaps over, as by then the prints were already being made available for half-price or less.32 Nonetheless, the touring continued through to the mid-1860s, taking them from Exeter to Dundee, via Bristol, London, Belfast, Glasgow, Leeds, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Derby, Nottingham, Bradford, York, and Huddersfield, among, presumably, other places.33 The touring continued until the early 1870s, after which point the pictures seem to have been shown more sporadically and were repeatedly (but unsuccessfully) put up for sale. In 1878 they were shipped to Australia, and put on show first at a commercial gallery in Melbourne, along with other works by Martin.34 In July they were announced as for sale by the owner, ‘Mrs Wilson’, before appearing, unofficially, at the British Court at the Sydney International Exhibition the following year.35 The pictures were shown in England after this point, but eventually mortgaged by John Martin’s grandson, Thomas Carew Martin, in 1906, and put into storage for several decades.
Nonetheless, the early history of touring and print publication meant that these images became the most globally renowned artworks of the nineteenth century. Quite simply, no images had been able to enter the purview of so many people in so many geographically distant places so quickly before. Importantly, we can argue for a degree of social penetration that was novel, as well. What is notable about these different displays is how various the exhibition halls were, from commercial gallery spaces and civic meeting rooms, through to the Gymnasium Hall at Huddersfield, Canterbury Hall in London (a newly erected, purpose built music hall), and the Odd-Fellows Hall in Birmingham. Also striking are the local variations in the marketing strategies employed at these different venues. While the pictures featured for only a matter of days in some places, they were kept on show for months on end in Liverpool. At Bristol in July 1861 it was being claimed that now 8,000,000 people had seen the paintings, ‘in England, Ireland, Scotland, and America’, and half-price tickets were available for ‘Schools and children’.36 The promotion and presentation of the pictures aligned them with self-improving lectures, theatrical entertainments and popular publications; at Sheffield, for instance, the pictures were displayed with ‘A Descriptive Lecture at Intervals’, as had always been the case with panoramas and dioramas.37 The venues used in that city were the Mechanics Institute (an adult education centre) and then the newly completed Temperance Hall, intended as a place where young working people could spend leisure time without resorting to alcohol, which alone suggests how these pictures were being cast as morally uplifting entertainments. Several early commentators recommended the pictures to schoolchildren, and in Manchester during one of the exhibitions there, arrangements were made for the boys of a local charity school to pay a visit; Martin’s picture were, it was noted, ‘subjects of the deepest interest to a very large circle, beyond those who are usually the lovers, admirers, or patrons of art’.38 What, though, might such a painting mean when placed so far beyond the legitimating gaze of an aesthetically educated elite?

The apocalyptic sublime – belief and the market

As three monumental canvases dealing with the end of the world through the presentation of vast and extraordinary landscape imagery, it would be hard to avoid associating Martin’s Last Judgement triptych with the sublime in some way. Indeed, they have been cast in modern times as the apogee of the ‘apocalyptic sublime’, which associates sublime extravagance with radical, progressive political and social stances and personal eccentricity, all supposedly exemplified by artists like Henry Fuseli, P.J. de Loutherbourg and, above all, William Blake. There is a pronounced tendency in recent literature on Martin to force the artist into allegiance with the key idiosyncratic figures of an earlier generation, and to see them as sharing some fundamental beliefs about the literal truth of biblical prophecy and the imminent end of the world, and the radical political stance this implies (labelled as ‘popular millenarianism’). For example, according to the literary scholar Morton D. Paley whose The Apocalyptic Sublime (1986) presents the most comprehensive and influential account of this kind: ‘Some of Martin’s ideas about the Bible have much in common with [William] Blake’s visionary radicalism’, while ‘At times Martin seems also to have entertained spiritualist notions that would not have seemed out of place in de Loutherbourg’.39 The radical independence of Martin’s political and religious beliefs are, for Paley, demonstrated by the present triptych, whose subjects were ‘inexorably’ the result of a lifelong dedication to the apocalyptic sublime: ‘It is as if the material sublime demanded the end of all material things in the end.’40
The descriptions of the Last Judgement triptych published in the accompanying exhibition pamphlet by Martin, or at least created with his approval, offer a stridently democratic, reforming vision of the last days on earth, with the materially successful and socially elevated (‘kings ... great men ... rich men’) suffering damnation, and the stream train, the most eloquent symbol of the speed and materialism of modern life, plunging into the depths to be replaced by a ‘new Earth’ of bucolic charms and timeless classical architecture. This matches the popular millenarianism of the day, and if it is impossible to prove that Martin upheld these views as personal beliefs, he was nonetheless conscious of their potential commercial value (albeit among non-traditional art audiences). In fact, the evidence for Martin’s personal beliefs is anecdotal, circumstantial, and contradictory, as Lars Kokkonen has established.41 Following Jonathan Rose, who has surveyed the reading habits of the working class in the nineteenth century, it is important to stress that by this point such millenarian values were not necessarily politically radical, but existed at a low level as a normal feature of ordinary people’s beliefs.42 With this in mind, the question of Martin’s personal beliefs should be considered less important than it often is. Although the assumption that Martin’s paintings must arise from deeply held radical religious feelings persists, in both general writings about the artist and even more specialised and academic productions, the most secure and consistent evidence would point to Martin holding mainstream religious beliefs, tending towards rationalism, and combining any radical political feelings with a dedication to the institution of monarchy and determined efforts at social climbing, which saw him take every opportunity to flatter princes, bishops and emperors.
Given Martin’s dedication to money-making enterprises (not all of which proved to be money-making, but that is perhaps beside the point), should he instead be cast as a merely commercial figure dedicated to exploiting a mass audience for art with images designed to appeal to the ‘lowest common denominator’? Such was one strand of criticism directed at the artist during his lifetime. The early nineteenth century saw a massive expansion of opportunities to view art in temporary exhibitions, in the metropolis and beyond.43 At the same time, there was a huge upsurge in the publication of newspapers, magazines and specialist journals. A new, mass-market literary culture emerged, commenting on art in contexts from the most general to the most specialised, and ranging in tone from the deeply serious to the satirical and frivolous. Martin’s art, displayed prominently in exhibitions and one-off displays, became a particular target for commentary. When, in the course of a particularly hostile review, the Westminster Review noted in 1834 that Martin was ‘the most universally popular painter of the day’, it was certainly not intended as a compliment:
No painter ever took so sudden and violent a hold upon the fancy of the public. All at once he blazed a meteor in the world of art. The multitude were astonished and they admired.44
Another critic, writing in 1827, complained anxiously about the ‘struggle after mere effect’ which seemed to characterise the ‘new school’ of British painting, with Martin at its head.45 The artist was accused of sheer cynicism, with the assertion that ‘the charge against this artist, of choosing his particular style, not from a conviction of its merits, but merely ad captandum [designed to please the crowd] is not entirely unmerited’.46
Among others, the distinguished writers Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt and William Makepeace Thackeray, and the painters John Constable and B.R. Haydon, are on record as viewing Martin’s work as demonstrating a false understanding of the principles of the sublime, as replacing a ‘deep’ or ‘profound’ sense of aesthetic grandeur with mere repetitiousness or simple scale.47 If we adhere to an ideal of an authentic Romanticism subsisting exclusively in the work of a minority of great poets and painters (including Shelley, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Turner, Constable) we might well follow them in viewing Martin as a kind of debased or distorted sublime, an exponent of theatre when the theatrical was being viewed by such figures as doubtful and even repellent.48 A writer in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Edinburgh Literary Journal (1829)found that ‘all Martin’s productions [are] rather imposing at first sight, and when more closely examined, is something very like a piece of humbug. The eternal sameness – a sameness, too, of bad taste and absurdity – in this artist’s style, is quite disgusting. He is a man of but one idea, and with that one idea he has gulled the public’.49 Another poet now seen as central to Romanticism, William Wordsworth, criticised Martin’s art.50 What Martin seems to have lacked, for such commentators, was a sense of profundity, of depth, of quality: he was instead shallow, quick, impoverished, sheer and shiny rather than richly textured, bright or obvious rather than properly sombre and difficult. Where they sought the transcendently sublime, he seemed to offer the literal and material.
We are presented with a stalemate between apparently incompatible versions of the artist, both equally contrary. On the one hand there is the sincere religious reformer whose radical artistic visions arise from and match a radical view of the world, whose art embodies his imagination; yet we have no certainty about the radical nature of Martin’s beliefs, and much evidence to the contrary. Moreover, we have to ask whether it was at all necessary for Martin to believe, simply and literally, in what he was painting. Then, on the other hand, we have a merely commercial, cynical operator, who abuses the rules of art in pursuit of mammon. But Martin failed repeatedly to make money, suffered near-bankruptcy, and committed huge amounts of time and energy to engineering and business projects that proved fruitless. It was at the one time of his life when he seems to have been financially settled, that he embarked on his Last Judgement pictures, works more extensive and ambitious than almost anything he had created before. It is hard to explain the production of such works in simply commercial terms: Martin could have found easier ways to make money.
There are two points to make here. One is methodological, and asks whether the oppositions between self-interest and selflessness, and between freewill and economic determinism, which are posed by such characterisations, are sustainable? Can we not conceive of historical agents being more complex, and contradictory, both sincere and self-interested, strategic but not simply cynical?51 We might, then, want to refer to Martin’s unusual social trajectory, his coming from an impoverished working-class background, receiving little formal art education, and feeling alienated from the metropolitan art establishment. Such an individual might be at once dedicated (even selflessly dedicated) to art, and motivated by the need to make money. Secondly, we could argue that it is in the nature of the sublime to trouble, or even make redundant, distinctions between ‘high’ and ‘low’, art and entertainment, money and the aesthetic. The sublime could be conceived as a way of articulating the instability and intransigence of the cultural field as it emerges with commercial modernity. The apparently unpredictable and only ever disputable slippage between the sublime and the ridiculous, the popular and the refined, the spectacular and the rarefied, are articulated as an aesthetic character, which, being cast as not subject to normal rules of judgement, is always, interminably, disputable.52 The hugely disputed status of the Last Judgement pictures (in their own day and since), their massive popularity as both art and spectacle, and their simple extravagance of scale, size and imagery, makes them exemplars of a nineteenth-century sublime which exposed the profoundly uncertain operations of an emerging mass culture, where questions of taste, value and propriety were, as they still are, always unsettled.
Descriptive Key to the Three Great Paintings by the Late John Martin, KL entitled ‘The Last Judgment’, ‘The Great Day of his Wrath’ and ‘The Plains of Heaven’, New York 1857, pp.7–8.
Ibid., pp.8–9.
Huddersfield Chronicle, 22 September 1855.
Revelation, 6:12-17.
Revelation, 21:1-5.
For relevant examples with quotes from contemporary criticism see Martin Myrone (ed.), John Martin: Apocalypse, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain, London 2011, cat. nos. 21–25, 44.
William Feaver, The Art of John Martin, Oxford 1975, p.191.
Manchester Times, 7 February 1855.
Chamber’s Journal, 12 March 1854, p.192.
Quoted in Thomas Balston, John Martin 1789–1854: His Life and Works, London 1947, p.249.
Feaver 1975, p.200.
Martin Tupper, letter to John Martin, 10 July 1852, in Mary L. Pendered, John Martin, Painter: His Life and Times, London 1923, p.193.
The contracts are quoted in Pendered 1923, pp.246–7.
See Gentleman’s Magazine, vol.61, January–June 1854, pp.433–6 and Athenaeum,4 March 1854. Years later the painter E.H. Corbould, who was married to one of Martin’s relatives on the Isle of Man, recalled seeing the paintings completed in Martin’s London studio, before accompanying the artist to his final trip to the Isle of Man. See The Isle of Man Times, 1 June 1889.
The Observer, 5 June 1853.
The Lady’s Newspaper, 11 June 1853.
The Scotsman, 26 November 1853; Courier, 19 December 1853.
The Hull Packet and East Riding Times, 19 May 1854.
Referring to previous displays in Leeds, Oxford ‘and other localities’, see Manchester Times, 7 February 1855; Newcastle Chronicle, 10 February 1855, quoted in Balston 1947, pp.242–3; Caledonian Mercury, 8 March 1855; The Scotsman, 10 March 1855.
Manchester Times, 10 March 1855.
The Times, 22 May 1855; Athenaeum, 7 July 1855.
A copy of this pamphlet is held by the British Museum Prints & Drawings Room (1917-6-6-28).
Liverpool Mercury, 3 August 1855.
Huddersfield Chronicle, 22 September 1855; Bradford Observer, 27 September 1855; Brotherton Special Collections , University of Leeds H-Bra-5.7 MAR.
Preston Guardian, 10 January 1856; Sheffield & Rotherham Independent, 26 January 1856; Blackburn Standard, 30 January 1856.
Sheffield & Rotherham Independent, 2 February 1856 and 9 February 1856.
Freeman’s Journal, 13 March 1856; Manchester Times, 3 May 1856; Liverpool Mercury, 13 June 1856.
The Times, 11 August 1856; The Morning Post, 23 August 1856.
New York Times, 31 October 1856.
See for example the printsellers’ advertisements in Manchester Guardian, 2 February 1857; The Times, 21 February 1857; The Courier (Hobart, Tasmania), 19 October 1857.
Personal correspondence with Dr Gerald L. Carr, December 2011; The Morning Post, 10 August 1860; The Athenaeum, 8 September 1860.
For example the three prints were being sold for less than half price in Glasgow; see the advert in The Scotsman, 8 August 1860.
See the advertisements appearing in these newspapers (usually over a series of issues): The Era, 30 December 1860; Bell’s Life in London and Sporting Chronicle, 17 March 1861; The Belfast News-Letter, 15 April 1861; The Bristol Mercury, 20 July 1861; Trewman’s Exeter Flying Post or Plymouth and Cornish Advertiser, 2 October 1861; The Bristol Mercury, 7 December 1861; Manchester Times, 25 January 1862; Glasgow Herald, 12 March 1862; Dundee Courier and Daily Argus, 11 April 1862; The Leeds Mercury, 5 May 1862; Liverpool Mercury, 3 June 1862; Birmingham Daily Post, 17 October 1862; Nottinghamshire Guardian, 26 December 1862; Derby Mercury, 21 January 1863; Bristol Mercury, 28 February 1863; Preston Guardian, 20 June 1863; Liverpool Mercury, 12 August 1863; York Herald, 29 August 1863; Manchester Times, 16 January 1864; Manchester Guardian, 30 January 1864; The Bradford Observer, 7 April 1864; The Huddersfield Chronicle, 28 May 1864; The Bristol Mercury, 15 April 1865.
Although the title ‘My Native Vale’ is given to the landscape watercolour at St Louis Art Museum, the fact that this is dated 1842 by the artist, while that titled work was exhibited in 1841, means that this must be mistaken.
The South Adelaide Advertiser, 23 April 1878; The Argus, 24 April 1878; The Argus, 23 July 1878. The inclusion of the picture in the Sydney International Exhibition is revealed in the long report of The Brisbane Courier (10 February 1880). The Mrs Wilson must be John Martin’s host on the Isle of Man, a cousin on his mother’s side, Maria Wilson (née Thompson) who was married the successful draper Thomas Wilson. See Jonathan Kewley, ‘Drapers on the Plains of Heaven: The Manx Connections of John Martin’, Antiquarian, no.5, Autumn 2011, pp.4–15.
The Bristol Mercury, 20 July 1861.
Sheffield & Rotherham Independent, 2 February 1856.
Manchester Guardian, 17 February 1855.
Morton D. Paley, The Apocalyptic Sublime, New Haven and London 1986, p.123.
Ibid., p.148.
See Lars Kokkonen, ‘The Prophet Motive? John Martin as Civil Engineer’, in Myrone 2011, pp.35–41.
Jonathan Rose, The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, New Haven 2000.
On London exhibitions see Cecilia Powell (ed.), London: World City 1800–1840, New Haven and London 1992; David H. Solkin (ed.), Art on the Line: The Royal Academy Exhibitions at Somerset House 1780-1836, New Haven and London 2001; Ann Bermingham, ‘Urbanity and the Spectacle of Art’, in James Chandler and Kevin Gilmartin (eds.), Romantic Metropolis: The Urban Scene of British Culture, 1790–1840, Cambridge 2005, pp.151–76. The major study of provincial exhibitions remains Trevor Fawcett, The Rise of English Provincial Art: Artist, Patrons, and Institutions outside London, 1800–1830, London 1974
Westminster Review, vol. 20 (1834), p.452.
The Literary Chronicle and Weekly Review, 7 April 1827.
New Monthly Magazine, vol. 9 (1823), p.254, quoted in Richard Green, ‘Aspects of John Martin’, unpublished MA thesis, Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London 1970, p.11.
Many such comments are compiled by Balston 1947, pp.62–4 (Lamb), pp.73–4 (Hazlitt), p.216 (Thackery), pp.181–4 (Constable) and pp.80–1 (Haydon).
On the ‘antitheatrical’ and anxiety about spectacle see Jonas Barish, The Antitheatrical Prejudice, Berkeley, Los Angeles and London 1981, p.326; Gillen D’Arcy Wood, The Shock of the Real: Romanticism and Visual Culture, New York and Basingstoke 2001; Sophie Thomas, Romanticism and Visuality: Fragments, History, Spectacle, New York and London 2008.
Edinburgh Literary Journal vol. 2 (1829), p.264.
Wordsworth ‘spoke severely of Martin’ to Henry Crabb Robinson in 1835; see Derek Hudson (ed.), The Diary of Henry Crabb Robison: An Abridgement, London 1967, p.140. He had previously told the harshly critical Charles Lamb ‘In your remarks upon Martin’s pictures, I entirely concur’; William Wordsworth, letter to Charles Lamb, 17 May 1833, in Alan G. Hill (ed.), The Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth, 7 vols, Oxford 1967–88, vol.5, pt.2 (1979) p.620.
See Pierre Bourdieu, ‘Is a Disinterested Act Possible?’, Practical Reason, Cambridge 1998, pp.75–91.
See Martin Myrone, ‘Fuseli and Gothic Spectacle’, Huntington Library Quarterly, 70:2 (2007), pp.289–310 (esp. pp.296–7).


This essay derives from the exhibition catalogue John Martin: Apocalypse, Tate Britain, London 2011. I would like to thank Lars Kokkonen, David Bindman and Michael Campbell for the ongoing conversations which have helped shape this material.

How to cite

Martin Myrone, ‘John Martin’s Last Judgement Triptych: The Apocalyptic Sublime in the Age of Spectacle’, in Nigel Llewellyn and Christine Riding (eds.), The Art of the Sublime, Tate Research Publication, January 2013,, accessed 13 April 2024.