John Martin

The Plains of Heaven

When I was a child, we visited my grandparents in outer London for a fortnight every Summer, and I would be taken round the Science Museum and the Tate Gallery. I got from my father the lesson that Culture needs effort to understand it, and is worth that effort, and often I would think that is true. Bach violin partitas, initially unlistenable for me, on repeated exposure became captivating and wonderful.

The Great Day of His Wrath

In my early teens, bored in the Tate, I came across John Martin for the first time, and I was captivated immediately.

The Last Judgment

There is an exhibition of his works at Tate Britain until 15 January. I was captivated, particularly, by those suspended huge boulders, just starting to fall, in “The Great Day of His Wrath”. Of course a huge amount of painting invites the imagination to show what happens next, but this was my introduction to that. I had an instant, visceral response to the armies of Gog and Magog and the Whore of Babylon in “The Last Judgment”. I found “The Plains of Heaven” comparatively uninteresting, though I began to notice beauty in it: it was something worth looking at, not just something I looked at because I was told to.

The paintings are about two metres by three, though in my memory they are much bigger than that, overwhelming panels the size of a wall, to match their emotional impact. I read that in the current exhibition they are illuminated a part at a time, with a commentary and music, in a fifteen minute show. The original viewers, before Cinema, would have seen them in even lighting on gallery walls and been invited, as I was, into an immediate mental drama, as the eye takes in the armies in steam trains, the Great Gulf Fixed, the zigzag lightning and oceans of lava.

I am not aware of the context, but now as my eye moves round The Last Judgment taking in Jesus’ return in glory, the angel with the Trumpet, the blessed, I think of Kandinsky and early Joan Miro with separate subjects in one painting, in relationship but no longer in one perspective.

2 thoughts on “John Martin

  1. … I’m inspired to go. I love Miro and Kandinsky and so will enjoy seeing how his work touches me. By the way, what you write here reminds me that I felt the visceral connection between Jackson Pollock and Van Gogh and was very surprised to read the curator had also made a link between the two…


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