John Martin’s sister was murdered by a neighbour, one brother was a “perfectly cracked” eccentric philosopher/inventor & the other an insane religious firestarter. Perhaps it’s no surprise John became the ultimate harbinger of The Apocolypse.
John Martin painted various apocolypses. Over and over and over. He was an Apocolyptian painter. Perhaps, it was a kind of escapism. It makes a kind of sense; a man born in a claustrophobic one bedroom cottage in Northumberland, England, who grew up to paint vast open expanses. It could be the other way around. He felt safe when closed in, safe from the hell of a threatening world outside. The source of calamity however most likely eminated from blood. First apprenticed to a painter of heraldic coaches in Newcastle, (he left after a dispute over his wages) then to a china painter. This china painter brought Martin to London in 1806 where he married at the age of nineteen, and supported himself by giving drawing lessons, and by painting in watercolours, and on china and glass. Just one of his painted plates is known to survive, this sits, somewhere in England, in a private collection. For leisure, Martin took to the study of perspective and architecture.
So why did John veer into the firey, watery, disease-ridden abyss? There’s a slight hint in the Martin family. The gentle way of saying it would be that Martin’s family was touched. Described as “perfectly cracked but harmless”, Martin’s brother William was a self styled natural philospher (A New System of Natural Philosophy on the Principle of Perpetual Motion, with a Variety of other Useful Discoveries“, A New System of Natural Philosophy on the Principle of Perpetual Motion, with a Variety of other Useful Discoveries etc., etc.), and an extremely eccentric inventor of perpetual motion machines, lifeboats, miners lamps & weighing machines. He also had stints as a rope maker and soldier.
William was also something of an engraver. In 1829 he made an engraving of York Minster after his other brother, the lunatic William, had attempted to burn it to the ground.
The other brother Johnathan was full-on insane. Certified. Brought up by his aunt, Ann Thompson, a staunch Protestant with a vivid image of hell, Johnathan had Ankyloglossia, known as tongue-tie, an oral abnormality that ristricts tongue movement. Johnathans tongue was tethered to the floor of his mouth. After witnessing his sister’s murder at the hands of a neighbour, he was sent to his uncle’s farm to recover from the shock. He was apprenticed to a tanner, then found himself press ganged to the Navy in London in 1804. He served on HMS Hercule for six years which included the Battle of Copenhagen in 1807. His shipmates remembered his religious obsession. Jonathan finally returned to England when the HMS Hercule was broken up in 1810. He settled to Durham, where he married and where his son Richard was born in 1814. Shortly thereafter, he became a Church of England denouncing Wesleyan preacher. He was well-known for disrupting Protestant church services. “Vipers from hell!”, he shouted at the Church of England clergy.
As William’s wild religious fervour increased he became known locally as “Mad Martin”. Hauled before magistrates on several occasions for continually disrupting of church services, he was arrested and committed to a lunatic asylum in 1817 after threatening to shoot the Bishop of Oxford. He escaped from the asylum twice. William began sending warning letters to the York Minster clergy demanding that they should “repent of bottles of wine, and roast beef and plum pudding” if they wished to escape from an unnamed wrath to come.
“Your great Minsters and churches will come rattling down upon your guilty heads,” one letter said.
He signed each letter “J.M.”
Believing that all prayer should come from the heart rather simply recitation from liturgy, William embarked on a personal mission to expose what he saw as corruption in the established church. In 1829 he went to York Minster for Evensong, hid until the great doors were closed, then gathered hymn books, cushions and curtains and started a fire. He escaped by climbing down a bell rope from the tower.
The fire caused extensive damage and the scene was likened by an onlooker to Martin’s work, oblivious to the fact that it had more to do with him than it initially seemed. Jonathan Martin’s defence at his trial was paid for with his brother John Martin’s money.
He didn’t get far. “J.M.” was a bit of a giveaway. It might just be that religious nutter Johnathan Martin, the painter’s brother, thought the authorities. When authorities found him, he went quietly, made no attempt to resist arrest or protest his innocence, simply declaring that he had carried out God’s will.
“It vexed me to hear them singing their prayers and amens,” William said at his trial, “I knew it did not come from the heart; it was deceiving the people.”
“After I had written five letters to the clergy, the last of which I believe was a very severe one, I was very anxious to speak to them by word of mouth; but none of them would come near me,” he explained to the judge.
“So I prayed to the Lord, and asked him what was to be done. And I dreamed that I saw a cloud come over the cathedral – and it tolled towards me at my lodgings; it awoke me out of my sleep, and I asked the Lord what it meant; and he told me it was to warn these clergymen of England, who were going to plays, and cards, and such like: and the Lord told me he had chosen me to warn them.”
Feelings in York were so running high against Martin that a detachment of soldiers remained in court during the trial because the judge feared he might be lynched. William is said to have smiled a great deal during the hearing, fuelling howls of anger from the public gallery. His confession was interpreted as a plea of guilty and the jury was instructed to pronounce only on his sanity. If judged sane, he would hang. Much to the chagrin of the public, it took the jury just seven minutes to decide that the burning of the Minster was the act of a man with an unsound mind. The damage done to York Minster took 3 years to repair.
William was sent to London’s St. Lukes Hospital for Lunatics – the infamous Bedlam – for the rest of his life. He died there nine years later, aged 56.
And so, it’s perhaps understandable that John Martin leaned right into the apocolypse. He became known as the painter of cataclysmic religious themes and fantastic compositions. Floods, volanic eruptions, plague. If you wanted imminent gloom of epic proportions, Martin was your man. The man. Typically vast, apocolyptic landscapes and cityscapes, his monumental paintings are usually peopled with tiny figures. Us humans. Stricken with awe of imminent catastrophy. Made small by events. Strangely, this epically gloomy imagery was immensely popular. It was reproduced in engravings and seen, not just in galleries, but nationwide. He exhibited at the Royal Academy from 1811, and at the British Institution, where he won premiums in 1817 and 1821. He designed various urban improvements for London, and painted landscapes of the Thames Valley.
Debt and family pressures, including the suicide of his nephew (the lunatic firestarter brother William’s son Richard) brought on a a deep depression which reached its worst in 1838. In 1853, a huge stroke paralysed Martin on the right side of his body. That same year he died in Douglas on the Isle of Man.
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