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‘A proud and independent mind’
Decline, crisis and recovery, c.1835–45

The late 1830s and early 1840s were a difficult time for Martin. As the sales of his prints faltered and with few new paintings to sell, he found his income from his art declining. He was also committing a great deal of time and energy to his ambitious plans for reforming London’s sewerage system. His was, as his friend Ralph Thomas put it, ‘a proud and independent mind’ and he wanted to be taken seriously as an inventor and engineer. While his proposals were considered, they came to nothing.

Things came to a head around 1837–8, when he appears to have been on the edge of bankruptcy. The death of his brother, the tragically insane Jonathan, deepened his depression. However, he came back from the brink and returned to oil painting with renewed vigour.

In this room you can see examples of Martin’s grandiose engineering plans, his later prints and some of the major paintings which helped re-establish his reputation as an artist. There is also the home-made cabinet that Martin created to display the letters and awards he had received from royalty and nobility. Looked at together, these all suggest how Martin was a complex man, aspiring to be both artist and engineer, simultaneously commercial and idealistic, vulnerable and proud.

The engineering plans

Martin dedicated a huge amount of time and money to a series of ambitious plans for the reform of London’s sewerage and transport system. His main proposal was creating an embankment along the Thames (including Millbank, where Tate Britain now stands). This would house a unified sewer sending London’s waste out of the metropolis, instead of into the Thames as was the case. The pollution of the river was one of the most pressing concerns of the time, and the threat of ecological disaster was keenly felt. In the 1840s he also focused on the idea of a railway line circulating strategically around the centre of London, twenty years before the construction of the London Underground.

Martin’s plans were admired and discussed at the highest level. However, none were put into action in his lifetime, blocked by rival business interests and by the perception among some that his plans were unrealistic.