John Martin – Catastrophic Artist

A belated Happy New Year to everyone. This post is a bit later than I anticipated because I’ve spent the weeks after Xmas finishing the second draft of Thumb. It’s now been put into a drawer for a month to ferment before I give it another going over and then send it to my editor. In the meantime I thought I’d kick off 2013 with a look at one of my favourite artists, John Martin (1789 – 1854). Martin was a hugely influential painter who specialised in spectacular renditions of cataclysmic biblical scenes. Here’s one of his most famous, The Great Day of His Wrath (1853) which shows the end of the world.


Martin’s religious works were revolutionary. Before him paintings from the Bible tended to be of people (i.e. Jesus, the Apostles, Abraham etc.) and covered a very specific range of limited subjects (The Annunciation, The Deposition, Doubting Thomas and so on). People in Martin’s paintings tend to be very small, down in a corner somewhere and usually falling into crevasses while the landscape is hurled about around them.  His work follows the Romantic creed of the Sublime, a vision of the natural world that is so vast and powerful that it humbles and awes those who look upon it. At the same time he was influenced by the early Geological schools of the Vulcanists and the Neptunists.

Sodom and GomorrahJohn Martin, 1854
The Destruction Of Sodom And Gomorrah – 1852

The Vulcanists and Neptunists, known collectively as ‘Catastrophic Geologists’ tried to explain how the surface of the Earth had reached its current form. Following the dictates of Platonism, which sees God’s creation as perfect, the world should be a uniform sphere. In reality it has random bits sticking out all over the place. The Vulcanists claimed that the surface of the Earth had been formed by sudden bursts of violent volcanic activity. The Neptunists stated that mighty floods had carved out the mountains and the valleys. The latter had scripture on their side, but in both cases these geologists were postulating a planet that was no more than 6000 years old. Rivalry between the two groups was intense. Neptunists used to waylay Vulcanists and beat them up, Vulcanists would mob Neptunist lectures and throw rotten fruit and horse manure.

The Deluge – 1834

Martin’s paintings belong to this vision of a world subject to massive violent turmoil, with mountains being hurled about and mighty waves thundering over the landscape while cities and people disappear into immense chasms. Interestingly, Immanuel Velikovsky‘s equally bonkers theories of the formation of the solar system (Worlds in Collision, 1950) belong to the same tradition.

Portrait of John Martin by Henry Warren – 1838

The Vulcanists and Neptunists were superseded in the early 1830s by an altogether more sensible paradigm when Charles Lyell published Principles of Geology. This argued that the surface of the Earth had been created by forces still in existence, i.e. erosion. Though seemingly a bit prosaic compared to previous ideas, it was incredibly revolutionary, not least because its claims necessitated an Earth that was millions of years old, not thousands. Lyell, and the idea of ‘Deep Geological Time’, paved the way for Darwin, giving him a timescale in which his concept of evolution could properly operate.

None of this deterred Martin from his apocalyptic visions (or having a crack at some rather cuddly dinosaurs as in his frontispiece to Gideon Mantell‘s The Wonders of Geology (1838)). He carried on painting huge, dramatic canvases that have influenced artists and film makers ever since. My Great Uncle Archie used to come over all peculiar when standing in front of a painting by John Martin. I can see why, they are often so large that if you stand close enough they fill your field of vision, and you get the same feeling of slight dizziness you get with IMAX.

Finally – rumour used to abound that John Martin set fire to York Minster so he could have something spectacular to paint. In reality it was his elder brother, Jonathan Martin, who tried to burn the edifice down, and who ended up in a lunatic asylum.






5 responses to “John Martin – Catastrophic Artist”

  1. Connie J Jasperson Avatar

    Wonderful artistry. I knew very little of John Martin, other than his epic, sweeping paintings. Now I will search out a bit more about him; what an interesting man.

  2. Lorijo Metz Avatar

    Wow! I would both love and fear having one of Martin’s paintings hanging in my house. On a good day, I would marvel on the awesomeness of the image…but on a bad day, it might send me right over the edge into one of those caverns!

    1. John Guy Collick Avatar
      John Guy Collick

      The Great Day of His Wrath is 6ft x 10ft so you’d need a very big wall to hang it from. These kind of paintings are designed to put the fear of god into people, along with Heironymous Bosch’s stranger works, and were thought of as perfect for hanging on the walls of Sunday schools and houses of correction!

  3. sally Avatar

    I stumbled across your site while doing John Martin research – he has been my favourite artist for as long as I can remember, his work is inspiring, terrifying, it draws me in and leaves me amazed. It’s rare to find people who know him these days, let alone love his work. I was also very happy to see a fellow Moomin fan! Moomins and John Martin.. a surreal pairing for sure.

    1. John Guy Collick Avatar
      John Guy Collick

      He’s definitely an underrated artist. Some of his illustrations to, for example, Milton, have a strong SF/Fantasy feel. He doesn’t really fit in anywhere – he’s a bit too early to be thought of as part of the Victorian Narrative art movement, and his subject matter is a bit too over the top for comparison with, say, Constable or Turner.

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