What is the effect of John Martin's use of architectural detail?



'Seen through the mist of ages, the great becomes the gigantic, the wonderful swells into the sublime' — John Martin.


And, no doubt, if we are to continue in a similar vein of pertinent hyperbole, the gigantic becomes the gargantuan, and the sublime tumesces into the positively empyrean — such is the rhetorical effect of Martin's hyper-bombastic painterly idiom. His major images, executed mostly between 1812 and 1829, can be seen as a solid progression of monumental themes, across which landscapes recede behind landscaped architectures, grandiose and precisely articulated. And it is this architectural imagination which distinguishes Martin from other Romantic artists such as Turner and Danby; which invites, simultaneously, both comparisons and contrasts with those masters of the Renaissance who incorporated depictions of classical architecture into their works; with which I shall lance (like his thunder-bolt lichtmotif) at the core of Martin's genius, as it is displayed again and again throughout his corpus.



In Martin's first work of note, Sadak in Search of the Waters of Oblivion (1812), we find no architecture at all; we do, however, find many of the themes and features which seemed already to define his style. Undoubtedly the first thing we notice about the painting is its sheer scale — our eye governed by the single exiguous human figure clambering up into the frame, his head yet unraised towards a Tartarean climate of precipices beetling swarthily over bursts of flame and flavid cataracts, light in pockets and crescendoes scattering upon rocks jutting up from the abyss. Martin derived the image from a story by James Ridley[1], in which Sadak, an Eastern nobleman, journeys to the Waters of Oblivion in an attempt to rescue his wife from the evil Sultan of Persia. The painted character, as Feaver puts it, has been 'reborn in Martin's image, a world-weary philosopher'[2] — moreover, just as he has lost the outward trappings of nobility in the fatigue of his quest, on canvas he is no longer merely a specific person, but has become rather a symbol for the artist himself, poised with dogged determination at the cusp either of glorious achievement, or of oblivion.


We see here the first stirrings of Martin's ambitions. In its scale and diminuted humanity, in its 'hot, foxy hue'[3], and in its relentless attention to detail, as well as in its literary origin, this painting set firmly the mould for its creator's future efforts. But the work, painted in just a month, was not well appreciated at the time. Hung condescendingly in the ante-room of the Royal Academy, along with a pair of traditional landscapes sent for the occasion, it was returned unsold. He later managed to hawk it to William Manning, the Governor of the Bank of England, for fifty guineas — half of his original asking-price. Despite this, the painting proved later an inspiration for various poets, including Keats, whose 1820 epic Hyperion supposedly derived a passage from the work, and Shelley, whose lyric Sadak the Wanderer was published posthumously, alongside an engraving of Martin's painting, in the periodical Keepsake in 1828.


It is in Martin's second great canvas, the 1816 Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still upon Gibeon, that we see the earliest signs of what would soon become his obsession — the accurate rendering of Old Testament architectural styles. The new work, while in its grandeur and fine detail prima facie similar to Sadak, in fact represents a huge leap forward for the artist. The solitary figure of the earlier scene has multiplied here into swarms of tiny beings: tunicked, elephant-back Palestinians routed by Israelite archers and oriflammed cavaliers, a shake-spear Joshua at the centre, with his priests, palm uplifted — all swept up in a sudden drama of the elements, nebulous vortices amassing and raining down in fulgurant torrents of arrows and hail. The visual references here, as Feaver[4] observes, are to Turner's Hannibal Crossing the Alps (in its meteorological effects) and, more clearly, to Altdorfer's 1529 Battle of Alexander.


We notice, also, that in contrast to the vault-like enclosure of Sadak, Joshua's desolation is airy, firmamented; and this change of space provides the opportunity for Martin to proffer, in the background, a misty glimpse of the city of Gibeon itself, bathed in the light of the sun beyond the storm-clouds. Its forms are, in the original painting, slight and thus somewhat ambiguous with regards to architectural style; but we can make out columnated porticoes, as well as the domes and towers of faint palaces. Martin's 1827 mezzotint of the work, and his 1848 oil copy, both radically expanded on the detail of these distant buildings, enunciating crisp arcades, drum-shaped capitals and great quarried pylon gateways. In all versions of the work, however, these primary forms are presented merely as embellishments on a scene whose main attraction is the storm and drang of Nature herself; subsequent paintings would expand on this nascent emphasis.


Joshua, like Sadak, was hung in the Royal Academy's ante-room; and, like Sadak, remained unsold — although this time the failure did not represent public opinion, which immediately proclaimed the exciting canvas a sensation. Conservative Academicians, for whom the great-est artworks were history paintings, were not so impressed; the new display represented to them an almost blasphemous diminishment of Man's moral splendour against the chaos of Nature. Lamb, although one of the great Romantic essayists, confirmed the Academic view in his own discourse, deploring Martin's belittled human figures:


the marshalling and the landscape of the war is everything, the miracle sinks into an anecdote of the day; and the eye may 'dart through rank and file traverse' for some minutes, before it shall discover, among his armed followers, which is Joshua.[5]



Unable to sell his oil-paintings, Martin was forced to trade in banausic sepia drawings, their subjects taken from Ovid and other popular classical sources. When these proved successful, he was offered in 1817 a commission for a series of topographical views of an Indianesque country house named Sezincot, designed in 1804 by S. P. Cockerell, with grounds landscaped by the great Humphrey Repton. In his sketches for this project we see the first visible develop-ments of his interest in massive Babylonian architecture, which becomes dreamily interfused with the Indian elephant statues and carved fountains actually found at Sezincot.


This interest would be taken up properly in Martin's next opus, The Fall of Babylon, finished in 1819. If Joshua – and subsequently, Belshazzar's Feast – showed a Biblical city about to be destroyed, this painting, along with his climactic The Fall of Nineveh, represented a city in the process of being destroyed. This painting, perhaps most of all, epitomizes Martin's brilliance: landscape has been reduced to a cropped Lorrainian arbour overlooking the Euphrates, and in its stead we find stout, tiered columns and concatenations of arches bridging the immense river. Alarmed citizens flock to the promenades overlooking the harbour, where far below, enemy galleys are attacking the city. On this canvas, larger still than Joshua, we see a clear progression from the themes of the earlier work; its human figures are still miniature, and its perspective is still enormous — but concurrent with his move from rugged wilderness to the pristine elegance of civilisation, we find the space of the picture even vaster and brighter than that of Joshua. The figures on the foreground steps are highlighted by a lip of shade, girdling them with the massive Eastern columns and extended harbour-water, casting the river as a sharp javelin of light, delineating the impetus of battle.


As before, Martin's later mezzotint of the painting, done in 1831, radically heightens the thrill of the scene — here we find the Altdorfer sky in full de Mille effect, the human figures fiery against umber rocks; the river assumes a glassy transparency, and the whole tableau is relit, spectacularly, from behind. Most of all, we now see in its full prominence the single most infamous and dramatic feature of Babylonian architecture — namely, the Tower of Babel. It was in fact these mezzotints, along with engravings and prints, that accounted most of all for Martin's burgeoning fame, and a little later, for his financial success. It has been remarked by more than one commentator, that after seeing the exquisite mezzotints of these and other works, the originals seemed somewhat pallid in comparison:


In the presence of the too celebrated picture these splendours vanish hopefully before a surface of dark yellow, monotonous and equally ugly, vulgar and tame.[6]


Balston, too, expresses his disappointment with Martin's work, in this case Belshazzar's Feast, after it was displayed in 1946: 'in a poorish light admittedly, it seemed merely an expanse of reddish-brown colour in which the few details still visible appeared black'[7]. Boase also agrees, praising his mezzotints while arguing that 'in the large canvases for which he became famous he never mastered the richness and fluidity of oil painting'[8].



Babylon, unlike Sadak and Joshua, was displayed in the Academy's chief rival, the British Institution; it was sold immediately, for 400 guineas, to the collector Henry Hope, to whom Martin felt a lifelong gratitude: 'A sum which was enough to set me free, to unmanacle me from the chains of debt, to place me above want; aye, to secure me a year's affluence'[9]. The painter had found his vocation, and over the next decade would repeat his performance again and again. Thus we find ourselves gawping once more at Belshazzar's Feast (1820), to which I shall return later, The Seventh Plague of Egypt (1823), and The Fall of Nineveh (1829) — at which point Martin has almost certainly lost imaginative steam. Other works, such as The De-struction of Pompeii and Herculaneum (1822), and The Deluge (1828), partake in Martinian catastrophism without recourse to architectural detail. Aside from these paintings, his other great contribution of this period is his collection of mezzotints for a new edition of Milton's Paradise Lost, commissioned in 1823 by Septimus Prowett. I do not have space here to dwell on the collection, except to pick up on two prints, Pandemonium, and Satan Presiding at the Infernal Council, which jointly deploy a bizarre 'science-fiction' architectural idiom, acutely extrapolated from the Babylonic styles of his earlier work to unique and impressive effect.


Superficially, it will be admitted, Martin's architectural brand of epic history had its forebears. As mentioned before, the masters of the Early and High Renaissance were particularly fond of incorporating finely-rendered imitations of classical architecture into their pictures; notable examples include Piero della Francesca's The Flagellation (1469), Perugino's Christ Handing the Keys to St. Peter (1482), and Raphael's School of Athens (1511). Bruegel painted two monumental images of the Babel Tower in 1563, although these confected monstrosities have little in common with Martin's stately rounded ziggurat. In the seventeenth century, neat class-ical ruins were regularly represented by Lorrain, Poussin, and their acolytes; and Piranesi, a hundred years on, chose to portray Roman dungeons in an aesthetic of pre-Romantic sublime gloom. In Martin's era, it was Turner who was depicting classical harbours in works such as the 1815 Dido Building Carthage.


But Martin's work differed in two great respects from these earlier masterpieces. Firstly, his buildings were imaginative recreations not of classical designs — the originals of which could (indeed, can) still be seen, ruinated, in Rome and parts of rural Greece — but of pre-classical, monolithic forms, such as those of Egypt and Babylon. The latter, in particular, was a source of great novelty, for although adventurous travellers swarmed to the Middle East in search of pyramids and Biblical temples, there would be little in the way of concrete archaeological evidence in support of ancient Mesopotamian culture for a few decades hence:


Indeed there was no extensive archaeological knowledge of Chaldean and Persian civilizations until the first results of Layard's excavations were published in 1848. Martin found himself a pioneer with little to guide him.[10]


Feaver makes explicit comparisons, not to Turner and the other Academy history painters, but to theatrical set-piece architects such as John Dobson, as well as to the fantastical drawings of Sir John Soane's assistant, Joseph Gandy, who had produced a number of outlandish designs over the previous decade. Further comparisons are made to de Loutherbourg's 1781 pin-hole thaumaturgy Eidophusikon, and to the 'panoramas' – giant cylindrical recreations of historical battles and places of scenic beauty – made popular by Barker in the late eighteenth century.


Martin's second novel architectural achievement, in spite of his obsolete subject matter, was his attention to historical detail. He drew on literary sources such as Herodotus, Diodorus Siculus and Flavius Josephus, as well as the more doubtful evidence of the Old Testament; to these he added more recent studies, such as Rich's 1815 Memoirs of the Ruins of Babylon, and Maurice's 1816 Observations on the Ruins of Babylon. Martin's own Babylon, like many of his subsequent epics, was presented in its catalogue with a firm assertion of authenticity, as well as a key to the thirteen major elements of the composition, such as:


1.  The Great Tower of Babel.

2.  Temple of Belus, the external buildings of Nebuchadnezzar.

3.  Temple of Venus.


The artist performed similar research for most of his paintings, going to great trouble where Turner and his predecessors had merely allowed themselves full creative licence. Although Martin did not provide any new research, he proved singularly adept at transforming existing material into brilliantly re-imagined showstoppers.



Examining these works now, in sequence, I find myself looking at a flip-book — an early wilderness is gradually transformed as human civilization, with its increasingly adventurous erections and edifices, first intrudes, and finally invades the chaos of Nature. But the buildings in question, even before they are finished, are already being razed and shattered by a hostile army, or even by the wrath of God. Such a thought must have occurred to Martin himself when he exhibited these works together in his 1822 retrospective at Piccadilly's Egyptian Hall. Feaver sees the issue in a political light: Martin's paintings, he argues, are designed to draw our attention to the dangers, of great social concern at the time, of 'over-population and poll-ution', as well as to 'themes of empires rotten at the core'[11]. With Napoleon's expansionist hubris still a recent memory, these anti-authoritarian sentiments must have struck a chord in the popular consciousness — a possibility which may, at least in part, account for Martin's runaway success.


To me however, these works represent a more metaphysical conception of the world, and one which closely allies Martin to the other Romantics. Throughout his oeuvre there is a continual sense, not only of empires rising and falling, but of space itself, pressing oppressively against the fragile constructions of humankind: a constant tension between form and matter. In the prologue to his preposterous autobiography, Salvador Dalํ asserts that:


form is always the product of an inquisitorial process of matter — the specific reaction of matter when subjected to the terrible coercion of space choking it on all sides, pressing and squeezing it out. . .[12]


While such sentiment in normal discourse appears ludicrous, I confess that in this context I find myself making strange sense of it. Martin's choice of Babylonian architecture, with its massive columns, its layering and its opulent proportions, has been selected not only for the sake of novelty and showman's bravado — it represents, I believe, the highest realisation of a harmony of shape and mass, or to put it differently, of worked and unworked matter — Man's plastic force against Nature's immobility. We find in his buildings simultaneously a paragon of elegant sculptural detail, and an echo of the brute solidity that we see also in Martin's de-pictions of the natural world; these edifices, in fact, seem very much heirs to that wilderness, formed not by human hands, but, as expressed by Dalํ, by space itself, storming and pressing the rocks into shape. The fact that Martin's greatest works either portray or foretell imminent destruction, along with his continual diminishment of the human figure, points to a conviction that mankind has merely a supporting r๔le in the vast and turbulent processes of nature.



If I have thus far put off discussing Belshazzar's Feast, a canvas of particular genius, it is for this reason — I have claimed already that Babylon is Martin's representative work, and that Nineveh is his climacteric; this piece, however, is his single most impressive painting, and specifically, the one which most encapsulates my convictions about his use of space. At first glance it reminds us of that early scene in Beckford's Oriental-Gothic apologue, Vathek:


having ascended, for the first time, the fifteen hundred stairs of his tower, he cast his eyes below, and beheld men not larger than pismires. . . The idea which such an elevation inspired of his own grandeur completely bewildered him. . .[13]


Here the Biblical narrative is familiar from Rembrandt: Belshazzar, the king of Babylon, held one night a sumptuous feast for all his subjects. In the middle of the banquet, a ghostly hand appeared from the air, tracing Hebrew letters of incandescent fire upon one wall, which read: mene mene tekel uphasin, or 'number, number, weight, divisions'. The prophets of the court were stumped as to their meaning, until Daniel interpreted them, 'You are weighed in the bal-ance and found wanting'. The city was sacked the next day.


Martin's image can be crucially contrasted to Rembrandt's celebrated work; he has traded that Dutch master's intimate moral drama and baroque darkness for a classic Martinian sweep of cavernous architecture, lit up in a scarlet and starlit blaze of flame and lavish decadence. We find Daniel echoing Joshua, tiny yet distinguished in black, gesturing at the phantom letters which illuminate the picture. Martin has outdone himself on the detail, from the multitudes of reeling figures to the play of light, lambent around stepped pillars and vast recessed vaults, and the shadowy ever-presence of the Tower. This painting, more than any of his others, contributed to Martin's lasting reputation; even Lamb, so critical of Joshua, delighted in its immensities: 'His towered structures are of the highest order of the material sublime.'[14]


I would like here to return and expand on my ideas about Martin's use of space – not pictorial or compositional planar space, but the suggested depths, dimensions of what the artist called his 'perspectives of feeling'[15]. Space behaves in a very peculiar way in this painting; firstly, we are forced to admit the paradox that in a work of so much detail, the primary object of 'repre-sentation' is in one sense the vast emptiness enclosed by the plinths and columns. It is almost impossible for us to square the painting's physical limits (63" by 98", to be precise) with the 'extent of unutterable infinity'[16] conjured by its one-point perspective. Such an equivocation was noted, we suspect, by the Bront๋ sisters, whose childhood doodlings and written scraps include ideas for a City of Glass (the etymologically-inept 'Verdopolis'), based explicitly on Martin's artistic constructions.


Moreover, because Martin has at last not only 'architectured' the entire landscape, as he did in Babylon, but actually encased it in Babylonic form, we have more than ever the sense that he is striving (consciously or not) to trap and to materialise the space that defines his vision. The painter goes so far as to disrupt our natural spatial awareness by catching the upper portion of the design in a confused translucency, half reflecting the cloistered heat of the revels, and half revealing the twin towers, as well as the watchful moon, beyond. It is this combination of effects, I believe, that accounts for the work's unique impact upon us.



I have suggested, then, that Martin's use of architecture, which increasingly envelops the pic-ture surface, is the key to his mastery over projected three-dimensional space. His deployment of grandiose perspective, integral to his scheme, both thrilled the general public, as it thrills us now, and dismayed the conservative Academicians; and this effect he would retain throughout his career, intermittently in works such as the Blakean Last Judgment (1853) and The Great Day of His Wrath (1852). The latter painting[17], possibly his largest, exchanges architectonic detail for a looser, textural infinitessimalism — and we discern, perhaps, a sly nod to Martin's earlier triumphs in the tiny fragments of pillars and classical columns at the right of the com-position, tumbling inevitably to their doom.




1.    Balston, John Martin (London: Gerald Duckworth, 1947)


2.    Beckford, Vathek (London: William Glaisher, 1924)


3     Boase, English Art 1800-1870 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1959)


4.    Chesneau, The English School of Painting [trans: Etherington] (New York: Cassell, 1885)


5.    Dalํ, The Secret Life of Salvador Dalํ [trans: Chevalier] (London: Vision Press, 1968)


6.    De Quincey, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (NY: New American Library, 1966)


7.    Feaver, The Art of John Martin (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975)


8.    Honour, Romanticism (London: Allen Lane, 1979)


9.    Lamb, 'Barrenness of the Imaginative Faculty in the Productions of Modern Art',

       The Essays of Elia (London: J. M. Dent, undated — my guess is 1920's)


10.    Twitchell, Romantic Horizons (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1983)

[1] The story in question, from the author's 1762 Tales of the Genii, was published, like MacPherson's Ossian and a number of other fantastical works, under the guise of being a translation — in this case, from Persian by the fic-tional Sir Charles Morell, 'Ambassador to the Great Mogul'. A later version of the story, retitled 'The Story of the Deev Alfakir', transformed the scene depicted by Martin into the narrative climax.


[2] Feaver, p.17

[3] Redgrave, quoted in Balston, p.58

[4] Feaver, p.27


[5] Lamb, p.269. The Londoner Lamb, it will be remembered, no lover of untamed Nature, was less than fond of the marathon lakeside rambles favoured by his close friends Wordsworth and Coleridge.

[6] Chesneau, p.100

[7] Balston, p.60.

[8] Boase, p.105-6

[9] Quoted in Balston, p.49

[10] Feaver, p.43

[11] Feaver, p.71

[12] Dalํ, p.2

[13] Beckford, p.6. In 1822, the writer invited Martin to paint his country mansion of Fonthill, notable for its 230 foot tall tower erected by James Wyatt; such a latter-day Babel had been anticipated by the painter in works like Belshazzar's Feast.


[14] Lamb, p.266. Twitchell, however, notes (p.111) that 'material sublime' is a backhanded compliment; Lamb was keenly aware of Martin's reliance on Romantic bombast and spectacle for his effects. This may be so; but Lamb's genuine enthusiasm for the work is supported by other comments.


[15] Quoted in Honour, p.153.

[16] De Quincey, p.91. Quoted is the 1821 original; his 1856 revision has 'unutterable and self-repeating infinity'.

[17] This last work, as some may recall, inspired one Glenn Brown — an artist little better than those cony-catchers who insist on peddling cut-rate readymades and stillborn camcorder-clips to Serota and Saatchi — whose 1998 non sequitur The Tragic Conversion of Salvador Dali garishly reproduces the minutiae of Martin's painting. The sole virtue of Brown's canvas, as far as I can see, is to draw attention to the earlier master, who has somewhat mysteriously fallen out of the public and critical consciousness.