‘And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men… And the city had no need of the sun, neither of the moon, to shine in it: for the glory of God did lighten it, and the Lamb is the light thereof.’ Book of Revelation, chapter XXI, c.2 and 23.
This exceptionally rare painting was made by Martin towards the end of his career circa 1850, whilst he was working on his most important series of paintings depicting The Last Judgment, Great Day of his Wrath and Plains of Heaven all now in the Tate. The City of God can be viewed as partly a preliminary to Martin’s major pictorial enterprise, but also as a stand-alone work in which he explored the pictorial effects and potential of the subject of heaven as described in the Book of Revelation. In the design of The City of God Martin brings together many of the compositional motifs – rocky outcrop, heavenly architecture, spectacular lighting effects and distant landscape - which had preoccupied him throughout his career. Preserved in outstanding condition, Martin’s canvas offers important evidence of his working practice whilst he was in the midst of executing his three most important paintings.
Martin was born in Northumberland and began his career apprenticed initially to a coach-painter in Newcastle upon Tyne and then to the china painter, Boniface Musso, whom he accompanied to London in 1805. He first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1811, but first made an impact the following year with Sadak in Search of the Waters of Oblivion (St Louis Art Museum, Missouri), a painting remarkable for its combination of dramatic composition and luminous colouration that was to be Martin's speciality for the rest of his career. Martin then produced a series of successful paintings including The Bard, The Fall of Babylon, exhibited in 1819 at the British Institution and Belshazzar's Feast for which Martin won a £200 premium at the Royal Academy exhibition of 1821. Martin emerged as an artist who was capable of using compositional effects, subject-matter and publicity to appeal to a mass audience. Belshazzar’s Feast was acquired by the glass painter William Collins, who, in partnership with Martin, exhibited the painting in his shop on The Strand before it toured the country. A description published to accompany the painting sited the archaeological accuracy of Martin’s use of architecture; Martin the showman recognized the allure of ‘authenticity’ while relying on the pull of crude perspectives. As the German critic G. F. Waagen said, such paintings as Belshazzar ‘unite in a high degree the qualities which the English require above all in a work of art—effect, a powerful invention, and topographical historical truth.’ Martin achieved great commercial success and an international reputation through the prints of his works. Martin’s conscious popularism meant that he was never fully accepted by the artistic establishment and never became a member of the Royal Academy.
After financially unsuccessful attempts at developing engineering and urban schemes and attempting to bring about reform of the copyright laws, Martin was facing financial ruin. He retrenched and began producing landscape watercolours, returning in the 1840s to the monumental panoramas of Miltonic and biblical subjects with which he had found his fame. In around 1845 Martin began to work on the Last Judgement triptych, the monumental works which were to become his lasting testament. The colossal paintings re-established Martin’s reputation, they toured internationally, were turned into popular engravings and were critically acclaimed. The City of God can be viewed as an early part of Martin’s painting campaign on the three great canvases; our painting relates specifically to the composition of the third of his Last Judgment triptych, The Plains of Heaven.
Michael Campbell has pointed out that The City of God shows Martin using many of the compositional motifs he had developed throughout his working career. Martin created a characteristically epic celestial landscape; lush, exotic trees are silhouetted against a meandering river, a range of hills are framed against purple mountains and the distant landscape dissolves into a pink horizon which merges with the sky. The rocky outcrop partially obscuring a fantastical city was a characteristic trope which Martin used in his earliest works, such as his 1816 painting Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still Upon Gibeon. The two figures standing on the outcrop, one with arm outstretched, silhouetted against the celestial light are characteristic of Martin’s work throughout his life. So too are the ornate barges, placidly floating on the waters, which first appear in Martin’s work in the late 1820s and become more and more elaborate on each occasion. The prows of the barges are almost identical to that of the ship in which Jesus is seen commanding the waters in Christ Stilleth the Tempest of 1852 (York City Art Gallery) and the boats which dominate the foreground of the Destruction of Tyre (Toledo Museum of Art) painted in 1840. This composite method reflects Martin’s own recorded working practice. A remarkable album survives in the V&A in which Martin selected favourite compositional elements from the prints made after his paintings, cutting them up and pasting them to act as an aid for the creation of new compositions, underlining that Martin thought of his pictures in terms of their separate parts.
When this painting was rediscovered in the 1980s the Martin scholar William Feaver incorrectly identified the subject as The Celestial City and the River of Bliss, a painting which had been exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1841. But as Michael Campbell has argued the subject is not from Milton or Bunyan, but the Bible and forms part of Martin’s general exploration of the Book of Revelation which culminates in the Last Judgment triptych now in the Tate.
In its palette, handling and composition The City of God recalls much of Martin’s earlier work, but as Michael Campbell has confirmed: this painting dates to the last decade of his career. The striations in the rocky outcrop are more abbreviated and stylised than those in his earliest paintings, where each strata is frequently delineated, the atmospheric sky is more freely painted and the vegetation is less minutely handled, all hallmarks of his later technique. Campbell has suggested that the present painting may have been left partially unfinished by Martin as the, passage depicting the mountains in the distance on the left appear not to have the characteristic highlights that one might expect. This passage reveals the soft brown ground which is characteristic of Martin. This underlines the composite nature of Martin’s working practice whereby he left reserves in place for areas to be worked up at different stages. Campbell has suggested that the foliage on the right hand side of the canvas and foreground details, such as the architectural fragment carved with figures was completed under his supervision by one of Martin’s sons, possibly his frequent collaborator, Alfred Martin. The present painting is not recorded in any of Martin’s posthumous sales and it probably was sold during his own lifetime. This may explain why it was never exhibited during Martin’s lifetime and was left unsigned unlike the majority of his aggrandising exhibition works.
Martin was a master when working on a grand scale; producing monumental public works, but he was equally adept at distilling his epic ideas into a smaller format. In this beautifully preserved and intensely handled painting, Martin has communicated the epic nature of the Book of Revelation on a cabinet scale. As Michael Campbell has noted: ‘few of [Martin’s] visionary works of this quality are still available, I view this painting as a work of some significance.’
We are extremely grateful to Michael Campbell for his help in cataloguing this painting.
- Ed. Martin Myrone, John Martin: Apocalypse, exh. cat., London (Tate Gallery), 2011, pp.99-108.
- G. F. Waagen, Works of Art and Artists in England, 1838, London, vol.II, p.162.
- For John Martin’s Album see Ed. Martin Myrone, John Martin: Apocalypse, exh. cat., London (Tate Gallery), 2011, cat. no. 79, pp.146-147.