On a rock, whose haughty brow
Frowns o'er old Conway's foaming flood
Robed in the sable garb of woe
With haggard eyes the Poet stood;
(Loose his beard, and hoary hair
Stream'd, like a meteor, to the troubled air)
And with a Master's hand, and Prophet's fire
Struck the deep sorrows of his lyre.
The Bard ~
As with the other great event of 1789, there are many overlapping possibilities and routes for interpretation with the figure of John Martin. With him, a horizon of potential explanations opens before us – from Madness to Mammon. The opening image of the Tate Britain's exhibition is Martin's 'The Bard' and it can provide us with several possibilities for understanding his oeuvre.
The Bard is an arresting and stunning display of man and nature; an image brought about in a cultural milieu of Scott and Wordsworth. The Bard’s mad gesture blends with the jutting landscape; the English army’s progress is defined by the river it trundles past.
Despite the drama of the scene, there is a clear link between Martin's early works and eighteenth-century painters such as Claude. Here – as with 'Pan and Syrinx' – Martin follows the French example, drawing on lush greens and soft blues to provide a pleasant and harmonious landscape for classical games to be played out on. This was familiar and inoffensive. Yet there is a visually striking difference between pieces like this and his other work. Martin’s 1812 piece ‘Sadak in Search of the Waters of Oblivion’ displays a pulsating and despairing scene of a landscape consuming and ruining the individual. The themes, however, collapse into one: Martin is saying that there is essentially man and nature; and despite your modern factories, steam engines and mills, this remains the case. Touching on the sublime is intimately connected with this duality.
In another sense the Bard represents a deeper idea. The old prophet – the last crumbling bastion of an antediluvian way of thinking – madly attempting to stem the current of an England representing order and progress at the expense of older values. In vain does he challenge the monotonous and inevitable advance of the English army.
With images like Belshazzar's Feast (1820) Martin takes this critique of the material a step further, thundering a message of Old Testament retribution to a rapt audience. And what better way to remind the masses of His wrath than the vision of hell and the apocalypse? Martin’s apocalyptic scenes of crumbling towers, cities engulfed by torrents of fire and frenzied armies baying wildly into decadent cities became hugely popular for many.
In this sense, Martin is doing more than merely painting images on canvas; he is not simply presenting intellectual ideas or narratives. The overly refined messages, references and puns that defined much of eighteenth-century art in England was already giving way to a love of more emotion and feeling. Martin, like the later Turner, is speaking to the viewers souls; searing lasting impressions. We do not, despite the explanations provided by the Tate, need to delve too deeply to see the messages behind visual testaments like 'The Fall of Babylon'.
Indeed the exhibition represents a broader sense of spiritual unease felt in Britain after the Napoleonic Wars. It is in this sense that reviews – such as that of Jonathan Jones in the Guardian – pathetically miss the point with Martin. Nineteenth-century Britain after the fall of Napoleon was neither spiritually nor materially stable. It's a sense of unease that for many heralded the black satanic smoke of mechanised Britain blotting out any idea of religion or community; stability succumbing to Peterloo Massacres and negligent Laissez-Faire giving way to Revolutions.
That revolutionary apocalypse did not engulf Britain says more for the ability of an establishment to listen, adapt and integrate ideas – such as those of Martin or Carlyle – than it does for any inherent British stability post-1815. While Martin's painting lack subtlety and delicacy, they had a profound impact. Attacking the overly complex paintings, the wildly animated figures and pyrotechnic madness of Martin as crass, negates the strong practical reasoning behind them. The Bard then, who is on the cusp of a dramatic leap into the thundering current, does not simply represent the failure to cling to ancient ideas in the face of progress or a glorious romantic outburst culminating in self-immolation. Instead it represents the practical success artists like Martin had in appealing beyond the material and to the very souls of the huddled masses of the nineteenth-century, untouched or unaware of ideas of progress, economics and democracy.