Artist - John Martin, Mezzotinter
( Originally Published 1925 )
The sitting-room was long and narrow. A hair cloth sofa of uncompromising rectitude was pushed so close to the wall that the imprints of at least two generations of heads might be discerned upon the flowered wall-paper -- flowers and grapes of monstrous size from some country akin to that visited by the Israelitish spies as related in the Good Book. A mahogany sideboard stood at the upper end of the room; in one window hung a cage which contained a feeble canary. As you entered your eyes fell upon an ornamental wax fruit piece under a conical glass. A stuffed bird, a robin redbreast, perched on a frosted tree in the midst of these pale tropical offerings, glared at you with beady eyes. Antimacassars and other things of horror were in the room. Also a centre table upon which might have been found Cowper's poems, the Bible, Beecher's sermons, and an illustrated book about the Holy Land by some hard-working reverend. It was Aunt Jane's living-room; in it she" had rocked and knitted for more than half a century. There were a few pictures on the wall, a crayon of her brother, a bank president with a shaved upper lip, a high, pious forehead, and in his eyes a stern expression of percentage. Over the dull white marble mantelpiece hung a huge mezzotint, of violent contrast in black and white, a picture whose subject had without doubt given it the place of honour in this old-fashioned, tasteless, homely, comfortable room. It bore for a title The Fall of Nineveh, and it was designed and mezzotinted by John Martin.
Let us look at this picture. It depicts the down-fall of the great city upon which the wrath of God is visited. There are ghastly gleams of lightning above the doomed vicinity. A fierce tempest is in progress as the invading hosts break down the great waterways and enter dry-shod into the vast and immemorial temples and palaces. The tragedy, the human quality of the design, is summed up by the agitated groups in the foreground; the king, surrounded by his harem, makes a gesture of despair; the women, with loose-flowing draperies, surround him like frightened swans. A high priest raises his hand to the stormy heavens, upon which he is evidently invoking as stormy maledictions. A warrior swings his blade; to his neck clings a fair helpless one, half nude. There are other groups. Men in armour rush to meet the foe in futile agitation. On temple tops, on marble terraces and balconies, on the efflorescent capitals of vast columns that pierce the sky, swarms affrighted humanity. The impression is grandiose and terrific. Exotic architecture, ebon night, an event that has echoed down the dusty corridors of legend or history — these and a hundred other de-tails are enclosed within the frame of this composition. Another picture which hangs hard by, the Destruction of Jerusalem, after Kaulbach, is colour-less in comparison. The Englishman had greater imagination than the German, though he lacked the latter's anatomical science. To-day in the Pinakothek, Munich, Kaulbach holds a place of honour. You may search in vain at the London National Gallery for the paintings of a man who once was on the crest of popularity in England, whose Biblical subjects attracted multitudes, whose mezzotints and engravings were sold wherever the English Bible was read. John Martin, painter, mezzotinter, man of gorgeous imagination, second to De Quincey or the author of Vathek, is today more forgotten than Beckford himself.
Heinrich Heine in his essay, The Romantic School, said that "the history of literature is a great morgue, wherein each seeks the dead who are near or dear to him." Into what morgue fell John Martin before his death? How account for the violent changes in popular taste ? Martin suffered from too great early success. The star of Turner was in the ascendant. John Ruskin denied merit to the mezzotinter, and so it is to-day that if you go to our print-shops you will seldom find one of his big or little plates. He has gone out of fashion — fatal phrase! — and only in the cabinets of old collectors can you get a peep at his archaic and astounding productions. William Blake is in vogue; perhaps Martin ? And then those who have garnered his plates will reap a harvest.
Facts concerning him or his work are slight. Bryan's dictionary accords him a few paragraphs. When at the British Museum, a; few years ago, I asked Mr. Sidney Colvin about the Martins in his print-room. There are not many, not so many as in a certain private collection here. But Mr. Colvin told me of the article written by Cosmo Monk--house in the Dictionary of National Biography, and from it we are enabled to present a few items about the man's career. He was born at Hayden Bridge, near Hexham, Northumberland, July 19, 1789. His father, Fenwick Martin, a fencing-master, held classes at the Chancellor's Head, Newcastle. His brothers, Jonathan (1782-1838) and William (1772-1851), have some claim on our notice, for the first was an insane prophet and incendiary, having set fire to York Minster in 1829; William was a natural philosopher and poet who published many works to prove the theory of perpetual motion. "After having convinced himself by means of thirty-six experiments of the impossibility of demonstrating it scientifically, it was revealed to him in a dream that God had chosen him to discover the great cause of all things, and this he made the subject of many works" (Jasnot, Vérités positives, 1854). Verily, as Lombroso bath it, "A hundred fanatics are found for a theological or metaphysical statement, but not one for a geometric problem."
The Martin stock was, without doubt, neurasthenic. John was apprenticed when fourteen to Wilson, a Newcastle coach painter, but ran away after a dispute over wages. He met Bonifacio Musso, an Italian china painter, and in 1806 went with him to London. There he supported him-self painting china and glass while he studied perspective and architecture. At nineteen he married and in 1812 lived in High Street, Marylebone, and from there sent to the Academy his first picture, Sadak in Search of the Waters of Oblivion (from Tales of the Genii). The figure of Sadak was so small that the framers disputed as to the top of the picture. It sold to Mr. Manning for fifty guineas. Benjamin West, president of the Royal Academy, encouraged Martin, and next year he painted Adam's First Sight of Eve, which he sold for seventy guineas. In 1814 his Clytis was shown in an ante-room of the exhibition, and he bitterly complained of his treatment. Joshua, m 1816, was as indifferently hung, and he never forgave the Academy the insult, though he did not withdraw from its annual functions. In 1817 he was appointed historical painter to Princess Charlotte and Prince Leopold. He etched about this time Character of Trees (seven plates) and the Bard at the Academy. In 1818 he removed to AlIsop Terrace, New (Marylebone road). In 1819 came The Fall of Babylon, Macbeth (1820), Belshazzar's Feast (1821), which, "excluded" from the Academy, yet won the £20o prize. A poem by T. S. Hughes started Martin. on this picture. It was a national success and was exhibited in the Strand behind a glass transparency. It went the round, of the provinces and large cities and attracted thousands. Martin Joined the Society of British Artists at its foundation and exhibited with them from 1824 to 1831, and also in 1837 and 1838, after which he sent his important pictures to the Royal Academy.
In 1833 The Fall of Nineveh went to Brussels, where it was bought by the Government. Martin was elected member of the Belgian Academy and the Order of Leopold was conferred on him. His old quarrels with the Academy broke out in 1836, and he testified before a committee as to favouritism. Then followed The Death of Moses, The Deluge, The Eve of the Deluge, The Assuaging of the Waters, Pandemonium. He painted landscapes and water-colours, scenes on the Thames, Brent, Wandle, Wey, Stillingbourne, and the hills and eminences about London. About this time he began scheming for a method of supplying Lon-don with water and one that would improve the docks and sewers. He engraved many of his own works, Belshazzar, Joshua, Nineveh, Fall of Babylon. The first two named, with The Deluge, were presented by the French Academy to Louis Phi- lippe, for which courtesy a medal was struck off in Martin's honour. The Ascent of Elijah, Christ Tempted in the Wilderness, and Martin's illustrations (with Westall's) to Milton's Paradise Lost were all completed at this period. For the latter Martin received £2,000. He removed to Lindsey House, Chelsea, in 1848 or 1849, and was living there in 1852, when he sent to the Academy his last contribution, Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. November 12, 1853, while engaged upon his last large canvases, The Last Judgment, The Great Day of Wrath, and The Plains of Heaven, he was paralysed on his right side. He was re-moved to the Isle of Man, and obstinately refusing proper nourishment, died at Douglas February 17, 1854. After his death three pictures, scenes from the Apocalypse, were exhibited at the Hall of Commerce. His portrait by Wangemann appeared in the Magazine of Fine Arts. A second son, Leopold Charles, writer, and godson of Leopold, King of Belgium, was an authority on costumes and numismatics (1817-89). His wife was a sister of Sir John Tenniel of Punch.
John Martin was slightly cracked; at least he was so considered by his contemporaries. He was easily affronted, yet he was a very generous man. He bought Etty's picture, The Combat, in 1825 for two or three hundred guineas. There are at the South Kensington Museum three Martins, water-colours, and one oil; at Newcastle, an oil. At the time of his decease his principal works were in the collections of Lord de Tabley, Dukes of Buckingham and Sutherland, Messrs. Hope and Scarisbruck, Earl Grey and Prince Albert. The Ley-Iand family of Nantchvyd, North Wales, owns the Joshua and several typical works of Martin. Wilkie, in a letter to Sir George Beaumont, describes Belshazzar's Feast as a "phenomenon." Bulwer declared that Martin was "more original and self-dependent than Raphael or Michael Angelo. " In the Last Essays of Elia there is one by Charles Lamb entitled Barrenness of the Imaginative Faculty in the Production of Modern Art. The name of Martin is not mentioned, but several of his works are unmistakably described. "His towered architecture [Lamb is writing of Belshazzar's Feast] are of the highest order of the material sublime. Whether they were dreams or transcripts of some elder workmanship - Assyrian ruins old — restored by this mighty artist, they satisfy our most stretched and craving conceptions of the glories of the antique world. It is a pity that they were ever peopled." "Literary" art critic as he was, Lamb put his finger on Martin's weakest spot - his figure painting. The entire essay should be read, for it contains a study of the Joshua in which this most delicious of English prose writers speaks of the "wise falsifications" of the great masters. Before his death the critics, tiring of him sooner than the public, called Martin tricky, meretricious, mechanical. To be sure, his drawing is faulty, his colour hot and smoky; nevertheless, he was not a charlatan. As David Wilkie wrote: "Weak in all these points in which he can be compared to other artists," he had the com-pensating quality of an imposing, if at times operatic, imagination. Monkhouse justly says that in Martin's illustrations to Milton the smallness of scale and absence of colour enable us to appreciate the grandeur of his conceptions with a minimum of his defects.
In sooth he lacked variety. His pictures are sooty and apocalyptic. We have seen the Mountain Landscape, at South Kensington, The Destruction of Herculaneum, at Manchester, another at Newcastle whose subject escapes us, and we confess that we prefer the mezzotints of Martin, particularly those engraved by Le Keux -- whose fine line and keen sense of balance corrected the incoherence of Martin's too blackened shadows and harsh explosions of whites. One looks in vain for the velvety tone of Earlom, or the vivid freshness of Valentine Green, in Martin. Ilk was not a colourist; his mastery consisted in transferring to his huge cartoons a sense of the awful, of the catastrophic. He excelled in the delineation of massive architecture, and if Piranesi was his superior in exactitude, he equalled the Italian in majesty and fantasy of design. No such cataclysmic pictures were ever before painted, nor since, though Gustave Doré, who without doubt made a study of Martin, has incorporated in his Biblical illustrations many of Martin's overwhelming ideas — the Deluge, for example. James Ensor, the Belgian illustrator, is an artist of fecund fancy who, alone among the new men, has betrayed a feeling for the strange architecture, dream architecture, we encounter in Martin. Coleridge in Kubla Khan, De Quincey in opium reveries, Poe and Baudelaire are among the writers who seem nearest to the English mezzotinter. William Beckford's Vathek, that most Oriental of tales, first written in French by a millionaire of genius, should have inspired Martin. Perhaps its mad fantasy did, for all we know — there is no authentic compilation of his compositions. Heine his spoken of Martin, as has Théophile Gautier, and his name, by some kink of destiny, is best known to the present generation because of Macaulay's mention of it in an essay.
The Vale of Tempe is one of Martin's larger plates seldom seen in the collector's catalogue. We have viewed it and other rare prints in the choice collection referred to already. Satan holding council, after Milton, is a striking conception. The Prince of Eblis sits on a vast globe of ebony.
About him are tier upon tier of faces, the faces of devils. Infernal chandeliers depend from remote ceilings. Light gashes the globe and the face and figure of Satan; both are of supernal beauty. Could this mezzotint, so small in size, so vast in its shadowy suggestiveness, have stirred Baudelaire to lines that shine with a metallic poisonous lustre?
And there is that tiny mezzotint in which we find ourselves at the base of a rude little hill. The shock of the quaking earth, the silent passing of the sheeted dead and the rush of the affrighted multitudes tell us that a cosmic tragedy is at hand. In a flare of lightning we see silhouetted against an angry sky three crosses at the top of a sad little hill. It is a crucifixion infinitely more real, more intense than Doré's. Another scene — also engraved by Le Keux: On a stony platform, vast and crowded, the people kneel in sack-cloth and ashes; the heavens thunder over the weeping millions of Nineveh, and the Lord of Hosts will not be appeased. Stretching to the clouds are black basaltic battlements, and above rear white-terraced palaces as swans that strain their throats to the sky. The mighty East is in penitence. Or, Elijah is rapt to heaven in a fiery whirlwind; or God creates light. This latter is one of the most extraordinary conceptions of a great visionary and worthy of William Blake. Or Sadak searching for the waters of oblivion. Alas, poor humanity! is here the allegory. A man, a midget amid the terrifying altitudes of barren stone, lifts himself painfully over a ledge of rock. Above him are vertiginous heights; below him, deadly precipices. Nothing helps him but himself — a page torn from Max Stirner is this parable. Light streams upon the struggling egoist as he toils to the summit of consciousness. Among the designs of nineteenth-century artists we can recall none so touching, so powerful, so modern as this picture.
Martin was not equally successful in portraying celestial episodes, though his paradises are enormous panoramas replete with architectural beauties. His figures, as exemplified in Miltonic illustrations, are more conventional than Fuseli's and never naively original as are Blake's. Indeed, of Blake's mystic poetry and divination Martin betrays no trace. He is not so much the seer as the inventor of infernal harmonies. Satan reviewing his army of devils is truly magnificent in its depiction of the serried host armed for battle; behind glistens burning Tophet in all its smoky splendour. Satan in shining armour must be a thousand feet high; he is sadly out of scale. So, too, in the quarrel of Michael and Satan over the sleeping Adam and Eve. Blake is here recalled in the rhythms of the monstrous figures. Bathos is in the design of Lucifer swimming in deepest hell upon waves of fire and filth; yet the lugubrious arches of the caverns in the perspective reveal Blake's fantasy, so quick to respond to external stimuli. Martin saw the earth as in an apocalyptic swoon, its forms distorted, its meanings inverted; a mad world, the world of an older theogony. But if there was little human in his visions, he is enormously impersonal; if he as-sailed heaven's gates on wings of melting wax, or dived deep into the pool of iniquity, he none the less caught glimpses in his breathless flights of strange countries across whose sill no human being ever passes. There is genuine hallucination. He must have seen his ghosts so often that in the end they petrified him, as did the Statue Don Giovanni. Martin was a species of reversed Turner. He spied the good that was in evil, the beauty in bituminous blacks. He is the painter of black music, the deifier of Beelzebub, and also one who caught the surge and thunder of the Old Testament, its majesty and its savagery. As an illustrator of sacred history, the world may one day return to John Martin.