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The Caroline Skeel Archives Reading Room

Scan of a print depicting the head, shoulders and chest of John Martin dressed in a high necked shirt and cravat under a black coat.  The print is from the 1820s

John Martin (1789-1854), started his career as a coach-painter and china painter. His first major work completed in 1811, Sadak in Search of the Waters of Oblivion, established him as a painter of the Romantic sublime. The publics’ imagination was captured by The Fall of Babylon 1819 and Belshazzar’s Feast 1820, the drama and intensity of Martins’ creations bringing him great celebrity. Although the Royal Academy never accepted him as a serious painter, Martin gained wider public appeal by taking advantage of a new medium, and producing print versions of his famous paintings.

At the heart of Martins’ genius was his vision and imagination which also provided him with a talent for invention. Horrified by outbreaks of cholera in 1830, he constructed schemes for metropolitan improvement. Of his many other inventions were sewage systems, embankments to prevent flooding, underground railways, glazed shopping malls. He invested heavily in the schemes and spent years vying for influential sponsors. But he failed to gain support, and his ideas were seen as fanciful or mad. As his art went out of fashion he fell into bankruptcy in 1837, his reputation never recovering. Yet his innovations were subsequently realised by others and he proved be a true visionary. His art is currently enjoying a revival, with an exhibition at the Laing Art Gallery (Mar-June 2011) and Tate Britain (Sept 2011).

See more examples from his collection in the Madness, Poverty and Genius Gallery.

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