Artist in Focus V - Jonathan Martin
Jonathan Martin was confined in the Criminal Lunatic Department of Bethlem Hospital from 1829-1838, following his attempt to burn down York Minster.
Martin was born at Hexham in Northumberland, the son of a journeyman tanner. One of his brothers was the popular history painter, John Martin: another was the inventor and pamphleteer William Martin, who signed his work ‘Philosophical Conqueror of All Nations’ and ‘Anti-Newtonian’. Jonathan spent a period in the navy, then worked as a tanner in Durham. He was inspired by prophetic dreams, and after his conversion to Methodism his religious fervour brought him before the magistrates several times for disrupting church services. Eventually he was sent to a private asylum at West Auckland, then transferred to another at Gateshead.
He escaped, and settled down to work in Darlington for several years, but continued to believe that he had a personal mission to expose the corrupt state of the established church. The dreams continued, including one which foretold the destruction of England by ‘the son of Bonaparte’. In 1825 he took to the road, preaching on this subject and also selling copies of his ‘Life of Jonathan Martin’, printed in pamphlet form at his own expense. The ‘Life’ included ‘An Account of the Extraordinary Interpositions of Divine Providence on his behalf’ during his service in the navy, and told of his subsequent conversion and of his many persecutions ‘for Conscience Sake’.
At the end of 1828 Martin arrived in York, and addressed several warning letters to the clergy there, exhorting them to repent of their ‘bottles of wine, and roast beef and plum pudding’, if they wished to escape from the wrath to come. When these received no reply he tried to reinforce the message by burning down York Minster, but succeeded in destroying only the choir. At his trial for arson he was found not guilty by reason of insanity, though he himself objected strongly to the insanity defence, maintaining that he had acted on God’s instructions, and God would not have chosen a madman to do his work. On 28 April 1829 he was transferred from York gaol to the State Criminal Lunatic Asylum at Bethlem Hospital, where he remained until his death on 27 May 1838.
Jonathan Martin had always expressed himself through drawing as well as writing, and while in Bethlem he continued to produce his remarkable pictures, bursting with energy and filled with rich imagery, high drama and extravagant fantasy. Typically they depict his prophetic visions, often accompanied by long explanations interspersed with snatches of autobiography and other personal details. It is recorded that he became very excited while drawing, and often had to be deprived of his materials, but he still managed to give away drawings and specimens of his writing to many of the strangers who visited him in the hospital.