John Martin and the Prometheans

Max Adams looks at the works of the artist John Martin, his radical schemes to improve Victorian London, and his broad circle of friends at the forefront of political and cultural change in the first half of the 19th century.

John Martin (1789-1854),  painter of the apocalyptic sublime and creator of radical schemes to transform England in the Industrial Revolution,  came from an impoverished rural background in the Tyne valley of Northumberland. His father Fenwick, a feckless but attractive man of great strength and ‘dauntless resolution’ was by turns a drover, pedlar, tanner, publican and swordsman. He was also a romantic. In about 1771 he eloped with a local girl called Isabella Thompson and carried her off to Gretna Green on horseback for a marriage at the smithy’s anvil.


John, born in the eighteenth year of their marriage, was the youngest of thirteen children, of whom five survived childhood. The oldest brother, William (1772-1851), became an eccentric inventor whose miners’ lamp was said to be better than that of Humphrey Davy, but whose obsession with perpetual motion and with denouncing Isaac Newton as a false prophet wrecked any hope of professional advancement. The second son, Richard (1779-1837), spent his life in the army: he was with Wellington in the Peninsular War and got through Waterloo unscathed. The third son, Jonathan (1782-1838), whose life tells a tortured tale of misfortune and schizophrenia, was the ‘Mad’ Martin who in 1829 set fire to York Minster and who spent the rest of his days in Bedlam. As a child he was prone to religious visions and grew up believing in a vengeful God. In 1804 he was illegally 'pressed' into the Navy. He served at the siege of Copenhagen and at the retreat from Corunna before deserting. His religious mania surfaced later when he threatened to shoot the Bishop of Oxford; it was his hatred of church corruption, and persistent voices in his head, that led to his escapade at York. 


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