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John Martin an under-appreciated talent

In his time, John Martin was an artist who was also a best seller as his paintings were so remarkable, displaying their apocalyptic scenes that they were wondered at by the crowds of the 19th century. His art was so popular that it was not just shown in art galleries, but in theatres and music halls because they could accommodate more guests.

Martin was also known because he came from a family living in poverty in the north of England and he became a friend of the royal family because of his art. This was something very remarkable in a time where class was even more notable than it is today.

What is strange is that his legacy today has somewhat faded, for someone who was so popular at the time he is strangely not of note in today’s art world. The Tate Britain will be hosting an exhibition starting this September that they hope will answer some of the questions surround his career and lack of legacy.

He was born in the late 17th century and began his work as a painter of coaches but he later moved south to London, where he became a different kind of painter. He became famous quickly for painting vast canvases filled with scenes showing the end of the world. His art work was so popular that it is estimated that around one third of the population saw at least one of his most famous pieces. Others were so controversial that they had to be kept guarded from the public to prevent vandalism.

His work was very popular and often found on the walls of European dignitaries and emperors from around the world. The art critics at the time though were less flattering about his work, saying that it was designed to appeal to those who were unsophisticated.

Martin Myrone is the curator of the Tate and has said, “It is interesting to read what critics at the time said about him. Their opinion was that if art appealed to the man on the street it was probably not that good.” Today’s art world believes that this criticism isn’t a judgement on the quality of Martin’s work but more a statement of the snobbery of the 19th century art world.

What also made Martin notable was that he had a much greater commercial sense than other painters at the time. He realised that there was a value in reproductions of his paintings and was a pioneer of printing reproductions – he would then send these to fans around the world and in doing so accumulated a fortune.

The director of the Tate Britain is Penelope Curtis and she has said, “The politics that existed in the art world at the time meant that Martin did not get the critical praise to match his commercial success. The art scene at the time favoured a type of art that was less showy. Today though the situation is different and some of the art being produced today is full of showmanship.”


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