Towards the end of his life, John Martin painted three large pictures, all of which are now in the collection of Tate Britain. Only “The Plains of Heaven” of 1853 is on display, high on a wall in the room dedicated to British Art of the 1840s. The other two paintings “The Great Day of his Wrath” of 1851-3 and “The Last Judgement” of 1853 are in store.
Shortly after these works were completed, Martin suffered a severe stroke on 12th November 1853 and he died at Douglas on the Isle of Man on 17th February 1854 .
“The Last Judgement” (see above) can be considered one of Martin’s finest achievements, but, before examining the painting, we should consider John Martin’s life and his success as a painter. He was born in Haydon Bridge in Northumberland, the fourth surviving son of Fenwick Martin, an itinerant tanner. John’s mother, Isabella, was religious and insisted that her children said prayers twice daily and had a fear of Hell and the devil , an upbringing that clearly affected him, as many of his paintings were on religious themes – “The Last Judgement” being a good example.
John’s eldest brother, William, became famous, or should it be infamous, as an inventor and “philosopher” . Next came Richard, who had an army career and rose to the rank of Quartermaster Sergeant in the Grenadier Guards , and then Jonathan, who achieved notoriety for deliberately setting fire to York Minster in protest against the behaviour of senior clerics . Having William and Jonathan as older siblings, with their strongly-held and controversial views, must have been a big influence on John, who described himself as a “timid and nervous child, fearing to be in the dark and dreading ghosts and hobgoblins at every corner” .
John’s passion for drawing and painting was clear throughout his childhood, but he lacked recommendations that would allow him to train with an established artist. Instead, he was first apprenticed to a coachbuilder, for whom he painted flourishes and images, and then became a pupil of Boniface Musso in Newcastle who taught him enamel painting and, by returning for extra tuition, the art of oil painting . He was an enthusiastic, and diligent, student and he moved to London in 1805 to join Charles Musso, Boniface’s son, as a china painter . He continued to study composition, perspective and architecture in his free time and eventually began to exhibit some of his oil paintings, becoming noticed by at least one influential patron, Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg . Having this entrée, he was able to work as an artist.
Arnold’s Magazine of the Fine Arts for December 1833  contains an article entitled “On the genius of John Martin” and we can get a flavour of the piece from several quotes:
We presume there are few readers of our magazine (artistical, literary or scientific) who are not acquainted with the name of John Martin, and to whom that name is not as “a household word,” embodying, in one conception, all that is great and glorious in art..
..we have seen many attempt the same supernatural style in painting and conception, but, in the general effect, they have fallen most immeasurably short of that richness, extent, and magnificence of design, which are inherent in all the pictures of John Martin..
There is much more in the same vein, detailing Martin’s skill in conveying architectural detail, sense of space, use of light and shade, etc. and it concludes with this:
..as if to add another proof to the true inconsistency of man, or of the nature which rules within him – as if to shew, we had almost said, what the overbearing spirit of jealousy and power can do – what shall we say to that great body of British Artists, who constitute the members of the Royal Academy, when the truth stares them, and the whole world, in the face THAT JOHN MARTIN IS NOT A MEMBER OF THE ROYAL ACADEMY..
The capitalisation is in the article and the whole piece is a passionate celebration of the paintings of John Martin and a sure indication that he was not a member of the Arts Establishment. A later article in the same magazine describing John Martin’s engravings for “Illustrations of the Bible” adopts a more critical tone, describing one as “a failure both in design, composition, and general effect” and another as having inappropriate figures as part of the composition. It does, however, describe John Martin’s ability to depict “the vast, the great, and the terrible”.
It is these skills which are featured in “The Last Judgement”, painted twenty years after these reviews and no-one can doubt that Martin was working on a large scale (the canvas measures 326 cm x 197 cm and the illustration above gives no impression of its size). A work on this scale gives an even greater sense of awe to those viewing it, an important consideration in paintings based on religious subjects.
“The Last Judgement” contains much detail, arranged into distinct sections (see above). The upper part of the painting shows the second coming of Christ, surrounded by angels and other heavenly figures, bathed in a dazzling light that is reminiscent of some works by Turner. At the right, we see the final expulsion of Satan (clad in black, of course) and he is cast into the giant chasm that runs diagonally and separates those who are saved from those who are damned. Some of the “saved” have been identified  and they include the painters Michelangelo, Rubens, Dürer and Wilkie; the writers Dante, Shakespeare and Milton; and the scientists Galileo, Franklin, Watt and Newton. The latter choice would not have pleased John’s brother William, who was passionate in his dislike of Newton , although this was as much a dislike for the mainstream view of science and scientists than it was against Newton himself. William died in 1851, so he was not going to be put out by John’s choice. On the side of the damned, there are many less-recognisable figures, but prominent is a bishop, so John is expressing the same strong dislike of Church leaders that was shown by his brother Jonathan, who died in Bethlem Royal Hospital in 1838 .
“The Last Judgement” had a mixed reception and it is easy to be critical of the work today. However, it must be accepted that its scale is impressive and it does have a strange, visionary quality. Perhaps Arnold’s Magazine was right in suggesting that John Martin should be elected to the Royal Academy, although his anti-Establishment stance, shared with his brothers, probably didn’t help? They were, however, a remarkable trio and John, like William, showed versatility as a free-thinking inventor, putting forward plans for a new London waterfront and also infrastructure for the supply of clean water . The three brothers are now largely forgotten, but we still have John’s paintings to remind us of the Martin family, even though they are not all on public display.
 Thomas Balston (1947) John Martin 1789-1854: his life and works. London, Gerald Duckworth & Co.
 William Feaver (1975) The Art of John Martin. Oxford, Clarendon Press.
 Thomas Balston (1945) The Life of Jonathan Martin, incendiary of York Minster, with some account of William and Richard Martin. London, Macmillan & Co.
 ? M. Arnold (1833) On the genius of John Martin. Arnold’s Magazine of the Fine Arts 3.2: 97-104.
Thanks to Tate Britain for giving me permission to use the image of Martin’s painting from their web site: https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/martin-the-last-judgement-t01927