John Martin
© Tate John Martin

Matching with our upcoming magazine is John Martin’s current exhibition in the Tate Britain in London. Monday 19 September 2011 – Sunday 15 January 2012

A vast painting of volcanic catastrophe by the British artist John Martin (1789–1854) is to be exhibited for the first time in almost a century. When the Thames flooded in 1928, The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum 1821 was widely considered to have been destroyed. After a painstaking restoration, it will be unveiled to the public on 21 September 2011 as part of Tate Britain’s major exhibition, John Martin: Apocalypse.

John Martin (1789–1854) was a key figure in the nineteenth-century art world, renowned for his dramatic scenes of apocalyptic destruction and biblical catastrophe. One of John Martin’s most ambitious works, this large oil painting depicts the devastating eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD with survivors fleeing the destruction of the Roman cities Pompeii and Herculaneum. Measuring over eight feet across, it was the centrepiece of Martin’s 1822 solo exhibition at the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly, where advertisements described it as “the most extraordinary production of the pencil that has ever appeared in this or any other country”. Originally commissioned by the Duke of Buckingham and Chandos, it was later sold by an art dealer to the National Gallery. It was transferred to Tate in 1918, by which time Martin’s reputation had declined substantially, and remained in storage until a severe Thames flood in 1928 badly damaged the painting and its remains were considered irreparable.

Recent interest in Martin’s work and plans for a new exhibition led Tate to unroll the remains and begin a major restoration project in 2010. Saturated with river water and under layers of discoloured varnish, the painting was painstakingly cleaned by conservator Sarah Maisey, Clothworkers Fellow. The section depicting the volcano and the cities had been completely destroyed, leaving the scene difficult for viewers to understand. Digitally tracking viewers’ eye movements also showed that viewer attention was distracted by the lost section of the painting. A new piece of canvas was therefore carefully reinstated and repainted, drawing on photographs, a smaller painted replica of the composition by Martin and an outline etching of the original work. The new areas of painting deliberately played down the level of detail, so that Martin’s original work could be distinguished on close inspection without compromising the power of the scene as a whole.

John Martin
© private Collection John Martin

The restored painting will now be exhibited for the first time in almost a century as part of John Martin: Apocalypse, the largest display of Martin’s work seen in public since 1822. At Tate Britain from 21 September 2011 to 15 January 2012, the exhibition will reassess this singular figure in art history, and reveal the enduring influence of his apocalyptic art on painting, cinema and popular spectacle.

John Martin: Apocalypse will be at Tate Britain from 21 September 2011 – 15 January 2012. Tate Britain is open daily 10.00 – 18.00 and until 22.00 every Friday from October onwards. For tickets, please visit or call 0044 20 7887 8888.

by Gabrielle Berlin