Feature: ArtScene

ArtScene: John Martin's Apocalypse at Tate

By , Columnist

LONDON. I ignore Athens. Escape to Rome. Pick-up the dry-cleaning in Paris. Then a detour via Ystad - 17,000 Swedish souls including Henning Mankell’s wonderful TV cop, Kurt Wallander and, my noisiest son.

A 14-hour plane and train and son is out.  It’s Sunday. Sweden is closed. SAS return flight is delayed so long my tummy rumbles longing for oysters and frites. No answer from Number One Fan (yet another pair of red socks). He says he's left his Blackberry in Florence. Or was it on train to Budapest?  How do I tell him he didn't?

And tell me this: Why is every one’s life in every city getting so mega complicated? Clinton always knew. “It’s the economy, stupid” (or was that “the stupid economy?”). So it’s about right that the first exhibition I bump into back in London is Victorian. Tate Britain is showing John Martin: Apocalypse until 15 January. It’s a must if you just love doom.


According to curator Martin Myrone (read his Gothic Nightmares) seeing is believing.  As US Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner would say, that’s heaven and hell for you. And that is what John Martin (1789-1854) was about. He painted images of heaven and hell on earth.

The sniffy Victorian art critics dismissed him as too populist and someone who simply exploited the Victorian imagination for catastrophe, especially on a biblical scale. Loadsa doom and destruction. Victorians liked biblical apocalypse and that’s why he was too often dismissed as nothing more than a "people’s painter," as Myrone says.

When you see this Tate Britain six-room collection (the first for thirty years) think 2011. I bet Martin would have found new scenes of foreboding and calamity in that plundered glass and steel Hades that is the IMF building in Washington DC from whence the wonderful Christine Lagarde (was there ever a more appropriately named defender of mammon?) is setting out to save the world. She’d do well to look up Martin’s Apocalypse.

Apart from anything else, the stark, jagged browns and scorchingly fiery reds and blacks of pits, crags and hell-holes are now very twenty-first century. Any kids thumb-killing avatars, black-minded angels and carrions of doom on their DS, will recognize Martin’s back drops of vengeance and threats. He’d have made his fortune in the video gaming world today. Somebody has to be making a buck out of calamity. 

As for the wonderfully elegant Christine Lagarde, what Martins should she have on her IMF wall? The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, painted in 1852 two years before his death? I think not.  What about Pandemonium, Hellish City of Mammon and The Last Judgement - in that order?

John Martin The Last Judgement.jpg

Meanwhile, we all leave Madame Lagarde to make sense of it while we live the truth of it. What sovereign debt crisis? Quantitative easing? I have the real world to sort.  How do I explain to Number One Fan that somehow the new silk red socks are on a Number 13 hot wash and extra spin.  Oh, and the missing Blackberry’s just clunked by at 1200 revs (it was in the back pocket of his jeans).  That’s life Christine. That’s life.

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Fiona Graham-Mackay, is London's newest royal portrait painter. She is also recently back from painting in the Pakistan-Afghan border. She studied at London's Royal College of Art, had a studio in Paris before returning to the UK to paint and teach in London, Spain and Italy. Her next assignments areā€¦

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