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In the Frame for October 2011: John Martin’s ‘The Deluge’

This month’s picture is The Deluge by the nineteenth-century painter John Martin. Unlike most of the pictures featured in our In the Frame series, it has been on display in our museum for some time, but its postcard-size dimensions make it easy to overlook. John was never a patient of Bethlem Hospital, but his older brother Jonathan was, following his failed attempt to burn down York Minster in 1829. The artistic output of both men featured depictions of death and destruction inspired by biblical imagery of apocalypse and judgment. The Deluge is none other than the flood from which, according to the Book of Genesis, only Noah and his family escaped. Other works by John Martin represent the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the sun standing still on the battlefield of Gibeon, and the original ‘writing on the wall’ that prophesied destruction at Belshazzar’s Feast.

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Jonathan’s visions were no less bleak, and perhaps more unta med than those of his brother. His London’s Overthrow, which we usually have on display, is on loan to Tate Britain for the duration of the abovementioned exhibition. Hell’s Gates and The Lambton Worm are among the pictures that can be seen in its place here at Bethlem. Each of these artworks has been extensively annotated in the artist’s own hand. Critics have drawn comparisons between the populist work of the younger Martin and the contemporary ‘disaster movie’ genre. There is no doubt that both John and Jonathan looked steadily into the abyss of human despondency. Yet their motive for so doing so was not one of schadenfreude or crass entertainment. They appear to have believed that, no matter how painful the exercise of the imagination could be, it was necessary in order to maintain a grasp on reality.