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The look of Revelation: "The Great Day of His Wrath" by John Martin (TATE) 

Some coincidences seem appropriate to a life. John Martin (1789-1854), the painter of Biblical apocalypses, is a case in point: not only was he was born five days after the Bastille was stormed, he also lost his father, mother, grandmother and son within a single year, and in 1829 one of his brothers set fire to York Minster. Turmoil and conflagration attended his life as well as his pictures.

Today Martin is seen as a curiosity, a strange hybrid — less of a landscape pioneer than Turner, less of a religious visionary than Blake, with something of the intensity of both but lacking their artistry. But in early to mid 19th-century Britain he was the most widely-known artist of the age. Before mass media his dizzying panoramas toured the country's shopping emporia and theatres and, with his dramatic mezzotints, won him a huge audience. By 1861 it was claimed that his paintings had already been seen by eight million people, most of whom were not the normal gallery-going public. The novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton called him "the greatest, the most lofty, the most original genius of the age".

His popularity and reach (prints of his Bible scenes and illustrations to Milton were collected around the world from America to New Zealand) also led to a certain critical sniffiness about him which has never gone away. He was regularly accused of cynicism and straining after effect, of bad taste and undermining the Sublime. Coleridge was withering: "Martin is a poor creature. It seems as if he looked at Nature through bits of stained glass, and was never satisfied with any appearance that was not prodigious." Romanticism has found room for other idiosyncratic painters such as Fuseli, Palmer and Richard Dadd but not, it seems, for Martin.

Today Martin is most widely appreciated not as a painter but as a cinéaste avant la lettre. His thrilling, pyrotechnic canvases are alternative big-screen, Technicolor entertainments which influenced, among others, pioneering filmmakers such as D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille. The new exhibition of his work at Tate Britain — his largest, almost unbelievably, since 1822 — is an attempt to reconsider his status and understand the reasons for his extraordinary celebrity.

Bizarrely for a painter who worked on a huge scale, Martin began his career as a painter of china and glass. But painting was not his only interest: he designed, and indeed was granted a patent, for a scheme to overhaul London's drainage system (which was later to influence strongly Joseph Bazalgette's improvements), as well as dreaming up new railway and lighthouse projects. In other ways too he was very much a man of his age: for example, his paintings show an interest in both dinosaurs and recent geological advances; he hosted salons for a variety of intellectuals; he was fiercely mercantile, his entrepreneurial tendencies leading him to take a stake in new exhibition venues and protect his image rights with tenacity.

His fame, however, rested on epic Biblical scenes such as Belshazzar's Feast (1820 and not seen in public for 20 years), The Great Day of His Wrath (1851-3) and The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (1852) in which fire and brimstone fall from the sky and sinful humans die like ants. One historian characterised these images as representing the "bourgeois alter ego of fantasy, passion and violent primal forces" but Martin's paintings were so expensive that only aristocrats could afford them. His admirers included not just a tranche of the nobility but also Prince Albert and King Leopold of the Belgians.

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