John Martin

Portrait of John Martin

John Martin: (1789-1854) was an English Romantic painter, engraver and illustrator. His work was often vast and dramatic often having biblical themes. He was born in Haydon Bridge in Northumberland, Britain on 19th July 1789 and died in the Isle of Man on 17th February 1854 aged 64.

Major Works

“The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum” (1822)
“The Fallen Angels Entering Pandemonium” (1841)
“The Great Day of his Wrath” (1853)
“The Last Judgement” (1853)

Biography Timeline

John Martin was born on 19th July 1789 at East Land Ends Cottage, Haydon Bridge in Northumberland, England. His father was a tanner called Fenwick, and his mother, Isabella, came from a land-owning family. Martin was the youngest of 13 children.

1794: He probably begins at the Free Haydon Bridge Grammar school.

1795: John’s elder brother William joins the Northumberland Militia so that he can get money to pay his father’s debts.

1803: He leaves school and the family move to White Cross in Newcastle upon Tyne.  He is apprenticed to a coach builder and learns painting. 

1804: The owner does not pay his annual salary uplift so he leaves the job. His father arranges for him to be a pupil of the Italian Boniface Musso who live sin Newcastle.

1805: He draws up plans for his brother’s scheme for a fan ventilation system for mines although many artists believe that such work is beneath him.

1806: He moves to London in September to work as a china painter. He paints landscapes from his childhood from memory. His other brother Richard is in London in the Grenadier Guards at the time.

1807: He works in Charles Muss’s glass and china works. 

1809: Charles Muss is bankrupted and the business is taken over by Williams Collins’ glass company. Martin marries a friend of the Musses, Susan Garret and the couple lodge in The Strand.

1810: He takes on some painting pupils and his first oil painting entitled “Clytie” is sent to the Royal Academy of Arts which was at that time in Somerset House. It is rejected due to lack of space.

1811: His first work is accepted by the Royal Academy called “Landscape Composition”. It is popular and Martin moves to Marylebone High Street to become a full time painter. By now the couple have two children called Fenwick and Isabella.

1812: “Sadak in Search of the Waters of Oblivion” is hung in an ante-room at the Royal Academy which imitates him and it is not sold.

1813: His Grandmother, father, mother and Fenwick his son all die during the year. A second son John is born. “Adam’s First Sight of Eve” is hung in the Great Room of the Royal Academy.

1814: His second son John dies but a fourth child called Alfred is born. Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg visits the Martins and becomes a friend and patron. He is introduced to the American artist Charles Robert Leslie R.A. who lends him money due to his financial difficulties. “Salmacis and Hermaphroditus” is sent to the new British Institution.

1816: His gift child, a daughter called Zenobia is born. “Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still upon Gibeon” is also placed in an anteroom at the Royal Academy and is not sold.

1817: Leopold Charles his sixth child is born. “The Bard” is hung in the Great Room of the Royal Academy but there is little interest in it.

1818: The Musses convince Martin that he should live like a successful artist and the family move to 30 Allsop’s Buildings on New Road, Marylebone. This has gardens as well as painting and printing rooms. His brother Jonathan is sent to an asylum for life when he threatens to shoot the Bishop of Oxford.

1819: His only completed work is “The Fall of Babylon” which proves popular at the British Institution.

1820: Charles, another son is born. unknown to him he is proposed for a vacancy as a member of the Royal Academy. Sadly he receives no votes. He begins work on “Belshazzar’s Feast”.

1821: “Belshazzar’s Feast” is hung at the British Institution in February.  

1822: A commission from the Duke of Buckingham “The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum” is shown at the Egyptian Halls in Piccadilly. (The painting was lost in the cellar flood at the Tate Gallery in 1928).  Martin now begins the use of Mezzotints.

1823: “Adam and Eve Entertaining the Angel Raphæl” is hung at the British Institution and “The Paphian Bower” at the Royal academy. Both are not popular with the critics.

1824: He loses £1600 savings as the Marsh, Sibbald and Co. bank collapses although he recoups the loss within the year. The Pall Mall Gallery opens its doors and his “Seventh Plagues of Egypt” is the main work on display. He falls out with the Royal Academy and don’t exhibit there for another thirteen years.

 1825: His third daughter Jessie is born.

1826: “The Deluge” is his major work at the British institution which he hangs with an accompanying descriptive pamphlet. The theme is similar to lines from Lord Byron’s work “Heaven and Earth”. Fifteen large engravings of Martin’s principal works including “Belshazzar’s Feast” are published.    

1827: His engineering “Plans for the Improvement of London’s Stinking and Cholera Prone Water Supplies” are begun but will take another twenty years to complete and take up a considerable amount of this time. His first pamphlet “Plan for the Supplying the Cities of London and Westminster with Pure Water from the River Colne” is published during the year.

1828: The “Fall of Nineveh” is exhibited at the Western Exchange, Old Bond Street, London in September. Sir Walter Scott is one of the visitors to see the work.

1829: Jonathan, Martin’s brother, sets fire to York Minster on 2nd February. The public confuse the two bothers and call the painter “mad Martin”. Jonathan is declared insane at his trial and spends the rest of his days in Bedlam Asylum.

 1830: A mezzotint of “The Fall of Nineveh” is published.

1833: He is elected to the Athenæum Club as a person of distinguished eminence. He takes out an injunction to stop a drama of “Belshazzar’s Feast” being displayed. “The Fall of Nineveh” is shown in Brussels and he is awarded a Gold Medal and receives a Knighthood form the King of the Belgians.  

1835: He is called as a witness to the Select Committee on Arts about the lack of correct design in the China Trade and copyright. His “Plans for the Ventilation of Mines” is shown to the Select Committee on Mine Safety.  

1836: He meets Charles Dickens and his new wife. He recommends to parliament that copyright should remain throughout the life of the artist and with their descendants as long as they own the work.  J. M. W. Turner supports this cause. 

1838: “The Death of Moses” and “The Death of Jacob” are both shown at the Royal Academy.  Hisrother Jonathan dies in Bedlam on 26th May. Martin paints a large scale work about the Coronation of Queen Victoria which took place on 28th June.

1839: The completed “The Coronation of Queen Victoria” is forwarded to Buckingham Palace for the Queen to view.  Prince Albert visits his studio later and suggest some biblical themes.

1840: “The Eve of the Deluge” and “The Assuagement of the Waters” are shown at the Royal academy.

1841: “Pandemonium” and “The Celestial City and River of Bliss” are shown at the Royal Academy. Isambard Kingdom Brunel runs a high speed test of a railway at Martin’s suggestion to disprove George Stephenson’s view that steam engines could not run faster than 15 mph. They manage 90 mph on the day with Martin on the footplate.

1842: His daughter Zenobia marries Peter Cunningham.

1843: C.R. Leslie publishes his “Memoirs of Constable” in which he includes old letters describing Martin’s work as pantomime.

1846: “Solitude” and five other landscapes are exhibited at the Royal Academy. 

1848: Four of his stained glass windows are sold at Christies on 6th June.  He resigns Directorship of the Metropolitan Sewage Manure Company. The Martin’s move house to 98 Cheyne Walk only 100 yards away from J.M.W. Turner.  

1849: He publishes more pamphlets on the “Thames and Metropolis Improvement Plan” and “The Plan for Ventilating Coal Mines”. Meanwhile his other brother William is seen in Newcastle Upon Tyne proclaiming himself “The Philosophical Conqueror of all Nations” whilst wearing a brass-mounted tortoise shell hat and a large medal. 

1851: William dies on 9th February aged 79.

1852: “The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah” is one of three works exhibited at the Royal Academy (now in the Laing Gallery, Newcastle Upon Tyne, UK). These are the last of his works to be publicly exhibited during his life. He complains to Prince Albert that his designs for a Goodwin Sands lighthouse and fire-proof ship have been stolen by the Trinity House Board. He begins “The Great Day of His Wrath”.

1853: On 12th November he suffers a stroke and paralysis whilst working on a “Meeting of Jacob and Esau”.  On 26th December, his last will is signed with cross.

John Martin died at home on 17th February 1854. He was buried in Kirk Braddan Cemetery, Douglas, Isle of Man in the Spittall family vault, on 24th February.

Further Information

Examples of paintings by Martin.