10 JANUARY 2004, Page 26

An experience of Apocalypse and a tribute to the man who painted it

_11:1] PAUL JOHNSON Nve do not think of England as a place for spectacular weather. Shuddering at the dreadful earthquake in Barn, a friend said, 'Thank God we only have normal weather here.' But do we? Driving down to the West Country on the afternoon of Boxing Day, I experienced a meteorological display of uncommon ferocity. First the sky turned a velvety grey, soft and opaline, as though about to melt. Then it was abruptly scrawled over with colossal charcoal streaks by a giant Rubens, who even mansized could execute in one stroke a brushline nine feet long. Then it disappeared completely into fierce rain which battered the windscreen, wipers working frantically, and reduced the visible world to a few perilous feet.

This rain was initially warm but, in less than a minute, became icy, the temperature dropping with horrify, ing speed, as though the immense transcontinental resources of the entire Gulf Stream system had been switched off abruptly by an angry deity. The rain turned to sleet, then hail, bullets half-an-inch long and hard as steel, drumming importunately on the car roof, piling up on the road, an inch every 20 seconds, and glowing evilly in the blackness like rotten wood. Cars slithered and juddered, or pulled on to the hard shoulder, scared faces peering out of the windows at the pandemonium.

Suddenly and incongruously, in the middle of this barbaric display of winter at its worst, a Riviera sun, huge and blazing, appeared through the gloom, a great circular disc of white-hot metal emerging from some mysterious furnace low in the sky. It had a misty halo and a penumbra of shattered cloud, and its light was dazzling, further disorientating the drivers who were still on the road. I looked around and saw a double rainbow, its beginnings anchored to the north in Somerset, its ends in Exmoor. This phenomenon Turner would have seized upon, insisting the car be stopped, and, clambering out, producing implements of his art from his seaman's coat or from under his top hat — crayons, pencils, stubs of charcoal, anything to hand — and setting to work, upright, by the side of the road, anxious to prove again his axiom that the English climate, if you waited long enough, could produce displays of savage beauty and sheer terror equal to any in the world, and that he invented nothing in his canvases, merely recording the effects of light on solid matter with meticulous accuracy.

But the drama was not over by any means. The sun shone brighter than ever, and above it an immense, almost liquid cloud reflected miles of rose-coloured light, glowing deeper as it ascended until, high in the afternoon sky, it turned black. Below was a secondary system of cloud, brilliant white, whizzing in from the incandescent sun in the hurricane winds, and below that again yet a third system, low under the fleeting clouds above it and not catching the sun's rays. These wispy, bedraggled clouds were thus grey and black, not unlike Saddam Hussein's infernal beard when he first emerged from his rat-hole. They seemed like a diabolical intervention in a vast struggle for the empyrean between light and darkness, and monochrome and blue, for patches of pure sky-blue were being unveiled by the fierce winds. All was changing, every second, in density of light, in colour and shape, in portents of doom and salvation, as the faithful and rebel angels fought it out. Abruptly to the left-centre of my vision, high above the rose-cloud but in clear sky, I saw the culminating miracle of the celestial fireworks display — a new moon, scimitar-slim, diamond-sparkling, determined not to be outdone by the furnace-sun but to see him off the stage. The animal world had spotted her too, and decided it was all too much for their nerves: a herd of 20 cattle, appearing from nowhere, charged in Gadarene hysteria across the centre of my vision and vanished into a dark wood. All the scene needed was a commanding figure, clad in white raiment, to stretch out his arm and point the moral.

And what was the moral? Never accuse a painter of extravagance in depicting nature without first examining the evidence. For what I had seen was more than Turner: it was pure John Martin. I have always loved Martin ever since, as a schoolboy in Lancashire, I was shown bits of the once fabulous Scarisbrick collection. Martin swore that all the details in his supposedly imaginary paintings — 'The Fall of Nineveh', 'The Deluge', 'Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still' — were authentic and based on drawings from nature. His beginnings were certainly prosaic enough. He was the son of a tanner. He learnt to paint as the heraldic designer of a Newcastle coachbuilder and as a decorator of glass and china. He could do anything in the lithography and engraving line. He also turned himself into an architect, engineer, designer. He earned large sums of money from his works and especially the engravings done from them — 'Belshazzar's Feast' was easily the most popular work in the world done in Victorian times. He lost one fortune in a City bank fraud, then

spent another on designs to modernise London: a new water-supply system, a network of sewers, the embankment of the Thames, a rational railway network, a safety system for deep-level coal pits, air-purification machines, replacement of wood by iron and steel for ships, fog-lights, new marine engines, anti-fire and explosion devices, new building materials including an adumbration of ferroconcrete, modern dry docks and improved road surfaces. Many of Martin's schemes, such as the embankment, were later adopted, not necessarily in precisely the way he proposed them. Some had to wait half a century, when post-fire Chicago brought iron or steel on a large scale into the production of high fireproof and earthquake-proof buildings. Martin got little or no credit at the time and spent about £10,000 of his own money on the plans.

Instead, he translated his perfect cities into paint, into Babylon and Nineveh, and such visions as 'The Celestial City and Rivers of Bliss'. Martin's visual creativity oscillated dramatically between a solidly built heaven, embodying new technology and scientific ersatz materials (a typical one was steel-andlaminated-wood strips), and catastrophes caused by divine intervention. There was no evidence that he was mad, as many thought, but a certain amount of guilt by association. His brother Jonathan tried to burn down York Minster and eventually died in Bedlam. Another brother, William, insisted on being addressed as 'the Philosophical Conqueror of all Nations'. Various other members of Martin's family committed suicide or engaged in eccentric activities. The Royal Academy exhibited his works — they could hardly do less in view of his popularity — but adamantly refused to elect him. What? Admit to their gentlemanly company an artist who wrote pamphlets entitled 'Outline of a Comprehensive Plan for Diverting Sewage'?

Martin's popularity plummeted in the 20th century. Some of his paintings and probably thousands of drawings were burned, lost or mutilated. In 1935 his magnificent trilogy of paintings, The Last Judgment', went at auction for .E7. There has been some revival in the last half-century but not enough. If I were a young man, I would be tempted to devote my life to investigating and collecting Martin's oeuvre, believing that he will be recognised as a great master when Picasso's daubs are in the basement. What I now know, anyway, is that he painted the world not so much from his imagination as from nature.