Extravagant Topography and Sublime Antiquarianism: John Martin, John Britton, Avebury, and Pompeii

Extravagant Topography and Sublime Antiquarianism: John Martin, John Britton, Avebury, and Pompeii

Martin Myrone
Tate Britain

1.         The opposition between topographical and imaginative landscape imagery has structured the understanding of landscape art in important ways over the last two centuries, in much the same way that the opposition between antiquarianism and historical writing has helped structure historiography (see Momigliano; Myrone and Peltz; Phillips 1996). Moreover, these two oppositions are not merely related by resemblance, but have actively influenced each other and interacted: topographical interests have often given rise to antiquarian research, antiquarian research has led to the creation of topographical imagery, and, insofar as topographical images so often contain and even focus on ruins and monuments as well as the worked, bounded, and otherwise historically marked landscape, they have served as pre-eminent antiquarian resources. Indeed, antiquarianism itself might even be defined as a historical practice by the special status it lends visual images as a form of evidence. The distinction between (and complaint against) the topographical has often also mobilized the prejudices (social as well as strictly intellectual) against antiquaries. The classic statement of such an opposition was contained in Henry Fuseli's Fourth Lecture on Painting as Professor of that art at the Royal Academy (first delivered 1804), in a passage which has been quoted repeatedly in recent scholarship as a means of illuminating the deepened antipathy towards topographical representation from an increasingly powerful metropolitan fine art establishment (see Myrone 2009, 57; Daniels and Bonehill 2012, 178):

To portrait painting, thus circumscribed [as "a kind of family kalendar" (sic)] we subjoin, as the last branch of uninteresting subjects, the kind of landscape which is entirely occupied with the tame delineation of a given spot; an enumeration of hill and dale, clumps of trees, shrubs, water, meadows, cottages, and houses, what is commonly called Views. These, if not assisted by nature, dictated by taste, or chosen for character, may delight the owner of the acres they enclose, the inhabitants of the spot, perhaps the antiquary or the traveller, but to every other eye they are little more than topography. The landscape of Titian, of Mola, or Salvator, of the Poussins, Claude, Rubens, Elzheimer, Rembrandt, and Wilson, spurns all relation with this kind of map-work. (qtd. in Baumgarten Vol. I, 141)
The images that would, then, satisfy "the antiquary or the traveller" appear almost inevitably to fall short of the status of art, or at least art of any intellectual or aesthetic ambition. These oppositions, between "map-work" and "art" so defined—oppositions generally assumed to be immediately self-evident and irrefutable—continue to operate with axiomatic force in much curatorial and art historical practice. As John Barrell asserts in his damning critique of the recent exhibition Constable, Gainsborough, Turner and the Making of Landscape (Royal Academy of Arts, London 2012-13), the historical narrative which arises from such a division underlies the most conventional story of landscape painting in Britain. In Barrell's view, this was simply re-stated, uncritically, by the exhibition, for it told (as he quotes the exhibition booklet):
how there was in the 18th century a variety of landscape called "topography," sometimes "strict topography," which was committed to "the accurate recording of particular places." The exhibition includes several such pictures, watercolors by Sandby, Michael Angelo Rooker and others, beautiful but somehow small-minded, limited in their ambition, we are invited to believe. Eventually, however, in the early 19th century, topographical art was transcended by something infinitely more serious and more powerful, a sublime style of painting that sought to represent the "grandeur of nature", and to produce in us "feelings of awe, fear or horror." This new landscape art, exemplified primarily by Turner, could also see through mere "particular places" to show us something that transcended all particularity, and which in this exhibition goes by such names as "British landscape scenery in its own right," or "nature itself."

2.        The narrative laid out here has some uncanny (and telling) similarities to that which can be told about the rise of "history" and "archaeology" in the nineteenth century in opposition to, and replacing, antiquarianism: the minute and trivial being displaced by the grand and firm, the small-minded by the expansive, the cold and distant by the urgent and engaged. We should be alert to the reflexiveness of such a position in the early nineteenth century—this division was one of the ways the "British School" of art was knowingly defined (see Phillips 2003)—and such an account of landscape art, appearing though it has at a major London exhibition venue, and enduring as it does in some popular and scholarly publishing and broadcasting, has been challenged repeatedly over the last thirty years or more, which fact must help explain the note of exasperation apparent in Barrell's polemic. Accounts of landscape imagery that propose it can "only" or "simply" represent the truth of the natural world have long been under scrutiny while landscape painting has been a primary focus of progressive scholarship in art history and visual culture studies. Clearly, this has been part of a much larger critique of visual representation which embraces antiquarian image-making as well as high art: as Stephanie Moser and Sam Smiles have asserted in introducing a collection of essays around archaeological imaging: "We now routinely accept that no pictorial device can be a transparent illustration of the world, but instead deploys technical devices, formal conventions, and ideological assumptions to orchestrate meaning" (1). With reference to British landscape art more particularly, we have witnessed a highly concentrated and hugely influential chain of scholarly contributions which, in the 1980s and early 1990s, reshaped British art history at large: John Barrell's seminal The Dark Side of the Landscape (1980), David Solkin's Richard Wilson: The Landscape of Reaction (1982), and Michael Rosenthal's Constable: The Painter and his Landscape (1983), followed by Ann Bermingham's Landscape and Ideology (1989), Andrew Hemingway's Landscape Imagery and Urban Culture in Early Nineteenth-Century Britain (1992) and Kay Dian Kriz's The Idea of the English Landscape Painter (1997), as well as numerous articles and chapters by these authors and others. Where these mainly focused on oil painting and reproductive prints, even more recently Andrew Kennedy, Stephen Daniels, John Bonehill (2009), and others have also subjected topographical and antiquarian landscape imagery to serious critical scrutiny. Topographical imagery is being actively rehabilitated as part of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century visual culture, with the insistence that "topography should be analysed in relation to larger structures of knowledge and value and the changing technologies and communication systems of this nascent consumer society" (Myrone "The Monarch," 57). The heroic narratives which suggested that antiquarianism was simply superseded by modern historical and archaeological methods in the nineteenth century have given way to accounts which are more localized in their concerns and more ready to acknowledge the sympathies, paradoxes, and continuities apparent in the emergence of modern disciplinary formations in the practice of history (see Myrone and Peltz, Smiles and Moser; Arnold and Bending; Pearce and Nurse, et al.).

3.         Here I want to address two images which can be positioned productively in the nexus of imaginative and topographical landscape imaging, art, and antiquarianism, in order further to complicate and revise our understanding of these purported divisions: John Martin's drawing of Avebury, imagined in its purportedly original state (drawn circa 1815-22, published as an engraving in 1825, and housed at the Wiltshire Heritage Museum) and his large oil painting, The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum (completed and exhibited for the first time in 1822; now in the collection of Tate, London). Martin has been only an awkward presence in the history of landscape painting, either too extravagant or too prosaic. Either way, his work has appeared too far detached from the moderated naturalism which purportedly defines the national school to qualify him as a "master". Situating these very different images in relation to the poles of imaginative and topographical image-making, and in the context of "Romantic Visuality" as an inherently unstable and shifting phenomenon, should expose a more complex and even unclear situation than commentators like Fuseli, or even his critics, would seem to allow.

4.         Both images could readily be considered in the context of much wider visual cultures around the sites concerned, and there is an existing literature around the imaging of Avebury (and of ancient British monuments) and of Pompeii and Herculaneum in the early nineteenth century. We could, very usefully, analyze these images without any reference to their authorship for what they might tell us about the topographical and artistic interpretation of these key historical locations at a moment at which the virtues and possibilities of landscape representation were being so thoroughly explored and overhauled. My intention here, though, is rather more modest and localized and focuses more on the ways we may read these images in relation to the professional positioning of Martin and Britton. Without wanting to revert to a naively biographical form of art-historical interpretation, I would nonetheless insist that this approach may help us to further appreciate the strategic (which is not to say necessarily self-conscious) value attached to antiquarianism and topography as they may have been deployed in the rapidly shifting social terrains of early nineteenth-century metropolitan culture, a cultural field in the full sense (as defined by struggle between its members over their respective virtues, values, and rights) (see Bourdieu).

5.         The first work under consideration, Martin's sepia-tinted drawing of the ancient monument of Avebury, was prepared for publication as a print for the belated third volume of the topographer John Britton's Beauties of Wiltshire (1801-1825). Martin's design, based—so we are told via the inscription of the published print reproducing the image in Britton's book—on a sketch by Britton himself, is described in a footnote:

The annexed view has been drawn for the purpose of conveying to a stranger some idea of this Temple in its primeval state. It professes to shew the whole from an imaginary station, about one mile north of the circles. Near the foreground is a cromlech (still remaining, but fallen,) with stones surrounding it; and the very skilful artist who made the drawing, has indicated an immense procession of ancient Britons, presumed to be in the act of performing some funeral ceremony. (276-77n)
The drawing is undated, but the reproductive print's inscription gives a publication date of August 1, 1824. It seems reasonable to assume that Martin would have produced it between 1822 and 1824, when he was already at work for Britton producing topographical designs of William Beckford's Fonthill Abbey (also in Wiltshire) and a drawing of Wells Cathedral for another Britton publication, and when too he was part of the same social circle in London (confirmed as a short-lived Pot Luck Club which, besides Britton and Martin, included William Jerdan, Alaric A. Watts and others. [1]  However, given the protracted production of the third volume of the Beauties of Wiltshire [2] , an earlier date is also possible. [3] 

6.         The drawing has never been given a significant place in the literature on Martin. The original reports of Britton's publication tended to focus on his account of Avebury, but even then the accompanying print is barely noticed (The Literary Chronicle for the Year 1825 660). The modern literature has given only scant attention to this design. [4]  By the date of the publication of the print, Martin had already produced and exhibited the several large paintings of biblical epics and historical disasters on which his reputation was to rest: Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still (1816; National Gallery of Art, Washington), The Fall of Babylon (1819; private collection, Europe), Belshazzar's Feast (1821; private collection, England) and The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum (1822; Tate), addressed below; he had also launched the series of hugely original mezzotint illustrations of Milton's Paradise Lost which secured him even wider fame. Martin's historical reputation (or infamy) has rested on these images, readily interpreted as extravagantly imaginative and wildly detached from any sort of tamely antiquarian and topographical impulses.

7.         By almost any criteria, traditional opinions about Martin's Avebury may be allowed to stand, insofar as they establish that this drawing and the resulting small print may not be of primary historical interest in relation to his life and career, to landscape imagery in the early nineteenth century, or perhaps even to the history of the illustration of that site. (Recent accounts generally overlook Britton's publication and Martin's drawing in favour of William Stukeley's earlier and more prominent contributions to archaeological scholarship.) But without wanting wilfully to overturn received opinion or attempting to elevate this drawing to an art-historical standing it is unlikely to bear, I am suggesting that Martin's Avebury nonetheless helps illuminate something of the disorderly, "predisciplinary" energies surrounding antiquarian image-making in the early years of the nineteenth century (see Calè and Craciun). These allowed for a closer interaction than we might anticipate—given accepted scholarly wisdom—between commercial self-interest and public virtue, between antiquarianism and modernity, and between art and its others. In particular, we can point to parallel investments (perhaps over-investments) on the parts of Britton and Martin in an apparently paradoxical kind of sublime or imaginative antiquarianism which promised these authors social and financial remuneration.

8.         The prehistoric site of Avebury had fascinated antiquaries throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Britton's text documented the many, various theories and suggestions that had been made about the remains, maintaining a skeptical view towards all of these. With its panoramic perspective and orderly presentation of both the site and the ancient Britons themselves, Martin's picture reflects the more positive view at that time of primitive British society as essentially benign, decorous, and only vaguely mystical. Sam Smiles in his important survey of Romantic images of ancient Britons identifies this as helping exemplify the "benign image of Druidic worship" which became dominant by the early nineteenth century:

All is decorous and ordered, the vast crowds move forward with the solemn pageantry appropriate for religious ceremonial. It takes little more than a moment's contemplation to note that the success of this image lies in its complete avoidance of any descriptive detail. The figures are on such a minute scale that the rites which accompany this funeral cannot be specified; all we are left with is a vague sense of religiosity conveyed by the disciplined patterns of the celebrants. (Image of Antiquity 86)
The point is especially clear when Martin's image is compared to William Overand Geller's The Druid's Sacrifice (1833), paradoxically "almost a caricature of Martin at his most apocalyptic" where Stonehenge is presented as the site of "savage tumult, whipped on by Druid instigation to an emotional climax with the broody, bloody circles" (Smiles, Image 96).

9.         Britton's interpretation (tentative as it was, as we will see) was that the site was for "sepulchral" rather than "sacrificial" purposes. He did, though, emphatically reject the "visionary theories" about the site forwarded most famously by William Stukeley (1687-1765), and most recently by Henry Browne (1769-1839), the model-maker and custodian of Stonehenge. Although Britton took the opportunity to praise Browne's models of Stonehenge and Avebury ("almost faultless") and went so far as to propose a subscription scheme to initiate a museum space to show them (of which more below), he dismissed as merely fanciful his projection of religious or spiritual qualities onto the landscape and the proposal of an antediluvian vintage for the monuments (Beauties of Wiltshire, Vol. 3, 304-5, 305n). But this maneuver is not simply the eschewal of an imaginative or emotional involvement with antiquity in favour of a scientific objectivity which we would associate, definitively, with modern disciplinary stances (of archaeology). Britton's position is worth laying out in full:

Having thus briefly noticed the opinions and theories of different authors, who have written on this obscure and unauthenticated subject, I would readily offer an opinion of my own, if I could found it on authority—or if I could adduce any thing like historical or demonstrative evidence; but when neither of these can be obtained—when all is vague, dark, and inscrutable—I cannot help regarding it as arrogant to pronounce a decided opinion, or advance an argument with pertinacity. Otherwise, like Stukeley and his partisans, I could easily contend that the monument at Avebury was a dragontium temple—that the figure, form, and involutions of a coiled serpent, were clearly to be traced—that it could not have been formed by any other class of persons than the Druids—that Druidism was the only system of religion in the island one thousand years before Christ—and that in this place Druidical worship was periodically performed, sacrifices made, and pagan rites and ceremonies observed. On these points there is ample scope for argument, or rather animadversion; and certain minds can readily be brought to yield all their credence to such theories. To the hypotheses of Pinkerton and Maculloch it is equally easy to yield assent; for it is equally easy in either to find a certain style of argument, and to assign certain plausible reasons; but neither the one or the other—neither the antediluvian nor the Roman origin—can be proved by the evidence of authentic history, nor yet by logical demonstration. Hence every one may indulge in speculation and conjecture, and every one amuse himself in forming theories, which it would be impossible to establish, either by fact or argument. (Beauties, Vol. 3, 305-6)
Britton seems here to be "having his cake and eating it". He runs through the rather enticing, even thrilling, theories of earlier writers, yet dismisses them as mere speculation. In his later "Brief Accounts with Illustrations of Ancient Barrows and of the Druidical Temples of Avebury and Stonehenge" Britton acknowledged his own early fascination with "These vast, mysterious, and marvellous relics of distant ages," stating of Avenbury that "The mystic halo which enveloped it, tended rather to awaken than repress research" (Autobiography, Vol. 3, 49):
At first, and for many years, I was harassed, and indeed distressed, by the theoretical opinions and visionary speculations of authors, who had written about the Druids and their monuments; and I was often tempted to relinquish the pursuit, in despair of ever arriving at any thing like proof, or rational evidence. . . .The futile theories of Borlase, King, Waltire, Browne, and many others, respecting rock-basins, sacrificial altars, ante-diluvian monuments, and temples for serpent-worship, not only excited doubt and discredit, but also regret that the patience and philosophy of readers should be so taxed and tantalized with the apparent learning and credulity of writers. (Autobiography, Vol. 3, 50)
Britton claims, therefore, "I deemed it advisable to limit myself to matters of fact, to plain descriptions of the monuments as they now appear, with such intimations for their pristine state and purposes, as common sense and reasonable deduction would warrant" (Autobiography, Vol. 3, 50).

10.         Yet where would we place Martin's design in relation to the "matters of fact" favored by Britton? As far as we can tell his image shows a "sepulchral" use of the site, or at least there are no signs of the sort of crowd agitation and atmospheric frenzy which artists and writers were wont to introduce into their suggestions of "sacrificial" activities. In fact, as Smiles implies, it is really quite hard to tell what is going on: we are made witness to a placid procession of no evident purpose. And yet, neither is this a bare record of known facts, but a projection of the historical appearance of a site which (as successive antiquarians down to Britton had recorded) had been greatly transformed by time and human interventions. The great procession of of ancient Britons snaking through the scenery is pure speculation, and if it introduces a sense of scale it does so in an unnecessarily elaborate way. And, finally, to judge from the surviving evidence, Britton himself was a perfectly capable artist who had already executed a series of drawings and watercolors of Avebury, one of which provided the source material for Martin. There must have been an expectation that Martin would add something to Britton's design; but it was not accuracy, nor an added level of finish. (Britton's drawing, dated 1815, is considerably more finished and colored).

11.         Arguably, what Martin brought must be what the pioneering fossil-hunter Gideon Mantell was later to term "magic" when he referred to his engagement of the artist in the task of illustrating his treatise on prehistoric creatures (Mantell, Vol. 1, 369) or what we might, in this context and evoking Britton's own words, call a "mystic halo." His presence, as an artist now well-established in the public imagination as a painter of the extraordinary and sublime, offers a note of extravagance which the relative restraint of the actual image does not mitigate completely. Notwithstanding his rhetorical appeal to "rational evidence," Britton was very ready to go down the route of optical entertainment and explore the potential for what we might now term "Gothic Technologies" (see Miles 2005; Baugh 2007). Britton's remarkable, tailor-made "Celtic Cabinet" (now housed at Devizes Museum)—which he designed for a collector but later displayed in his own collection—literally showcases watercolors and models, and features "a glazed shade at the top, of four various tints of glass, to display, under so many different effects" replicas of Stonehenge (Autobiography,161; see Chippendale; Evans 151-2). With this piece, Britton invited the viewer to look at a scale replica of "Nature" quite literally through the "stained glass" that Coleridge had perceived as intruding into John Martin's painterly vision (Woodring 1:152). Following up on the suggestion he made in a footnote in Volume III of the Beauties of Wiltshire, Britton went so far as to announce his plans for a Druidical Antiquarian Company:

In the present age of Joint Stock Companies, or stock-jobbing bubbles, we can scarcely use the word, "Company" without exciting suspicion and almost dread. It is employed here merely jocosely, not with a view of continuing it, should the suggestions now offered obtain the sanction of a sufficient number of gentlemen to carry them into effect. It may be proper to remark, that I have meditated on a novel plan for exhibiting models, pictures to be elucidated by lectures. This plan would combine something of the principles of the Cosmorama, Diorama, Panorama, and Eidophusicon; and I am persuaded that a very interesting exhibition might be formed of Celtic or Druidical Antiquities, whereby amusement and instruction might be united and where "fools who came to scoff" would stay and muse. (Britton "[Letter]" 511)
Perhaps in an earlier age Britton's allusion to "amusement" could readily be taken as referring only to the possibility of private entertainment, a softening of the hard task of intellectual labor undertaken in the library. Elsewhere Britton articulated such a role for illustration and artifact (writing in 1840, by which time the terminology around the discipline of archaeology was taking on its modern meanings): "As the florist and the botanist have their hortus siccus, to preserve, and renew, to the eye and mind, the forms and hues of flowers and plants, so has the archaeologist his casts, models, drawings, and engravings, of rare and interesting antiquities" (Autobiography, 333). But early nineteenth-century metropolitan culture offered quite another context for antiquarian knowledge, one characterized, as James Chandler and Kevin Gilmartin have recently observed, by "[b]lurred boundaries and conflicting cultural imperatives" (35).

12.         From the work of historians of science on the Royal Society, particularly Steven Shapin, we are now familiar with the idea that the discourse of scientific scrutiny and validation which became such a force in the intellectual field from the late seventeenth century also marked out the socially-defined boundaries around formal knowledge: the rhetoric of disinterest, universality, and inclusion also disguised social exclusions. But Britton was writing in the context of a rapidly developing urban culture of entertainment, one that undermined previous generations' disciplining and policing of knowledge. Reviewing the third volume of Britton's Beauties, The Monthly Review noted in its description of Avebury that "though a curiosity of unparalleled interest according to the testimony of every antiquary, [it] is little known to the general body of tourists" ("Britton's Beauties" 258). Britton himself was, or became, conscious of a frank democratization of knowledge that commercialization made possible:

When I commenced my Topographical career, at the end of the last century, it should be remembered, that most of the books I could refer to, or regard as models, were of the class described by Mr [Richard] Gough; and that the great mass of the people were besotted in ignorance and consequent superstition, whilst the highest orders were generally immersed in partizanship and political ambition. The rich kept aloof from and shunned the poor, whilst the latter regarded the former as severe and cruel taskmasters. Hence discord and contention ensued, and hence arose those hatreds and animosities which became manifested in the insurrections and rebellions of America, France and Ireland. Though these national convulsions were terrific and lamentable at their respective epochs, we may derive from them the consolation of knowing and enjoying the enlightenment and amenity of sentiment which belong to the present philosophical age. In the current state of Topography and Archaeology, we witness the effect of this spirit—the progress of mind and sentiment. (Autobiography, Vol. 3, 334)
The potential legitimacy and socially transformative value of enjoying historical and architectural speculations as a form of amusement, without the hope of securing absolute scholarly truths, seems key to the way Martin himself expected his art to be appreciated and, accordingly, how he expected to be accepted as an artist of importance. Writing a few years later of his artistic recreations of the lost cities of Nineveh and Babylon, he pointed to a similar belief in the right to poetic license on the part of the painter, which need not, however, lead to sheer visionary invention or simple fancy:
The mighty cities of Nineveh and Babylon have long since passed away, and, till lately, the traveller hath sought in vain for the spot where their dust reposed. The accounts of their greatness and splendour, handed down to us by the historians, may have been exaggerated; but, where strict truth is not essential, the mind is content to find delight in the contemplation of the grand and the marvellous. Into the solemn obscure of antiquity we look without demanding, or even expecting, the clear day-light of truth. Seen through the mist of ages, the great becomes gigantic, the wonderful swells into the sublime, and we do not start back in derision of the mighty shadows. (Fall of Nineveh 5)
Martin thus rehashes a Burkean position on the amplifying effects of temporal and physical distance: a sublime which is old and/or distant may be more readily admired, may be more sublime. Martin's panoramic view of the Avebury landscape, with its primitive architecture stretching back into the limitless distance and its vast multitude in snaking procession conveying a nearly incomprehensible sense of scale, conforms to this free (but not undisciplined) pursuit of the "grand and the marvelous". The sublime thus proves itself as a kind of loop-hole or blind-spot within Romantic-period artistic and historical discourse, allowing for the possibility of an emotional and sensory engagement with the visual which may in turn facilitate social change and commercial advantage. Yet there were, clearly, risks involved here as well, as the critical reception of Martin's work makes most vividly evident.

13.         Although Martin does not figure in Britton's autobiography, nor was Britton noticed in Martin's considerably more brief autobiographical statement, there is evidence that the two enjoyed a sustained friendship as well as recurring professional links. [5]  This may only point to an amicable connection and mutual regard in the context of a densely networked community of metropolitan cultural producers. But the social trajectories of the two men also have some close parallels. Both were born in what they themselves termed "humble" circumstances, in locations physically isolated from the centers of literate culture. Martin was born in Haydon Bridge, in Northumbria, in a small cottage, with a father of no fixed occupation, and despite having received some elementary formal education was sent into an apprenticeship as a coachpainter. Britton grew up in "a rude and truly illiterate village . . . I do not recollect that I ever beheld a newspaper before the age of fifteen, nor did I ever hear of a magazine, review, or any book, but a few novels, which my elder sister occasionally obtained from the neighbouring town of Chippenham" (Beauties, Vol. 3, 16). Both, too, had family connections which connected them to the higher echelons of society. Martin's mother descended from landowners, though the family had come down in the world considerably. In Britton's family there was "talk of 'great relations'" and he admitted, intriguingly, that "these vague, undefined, and probably exaggerated stories, excited a little wonder, and some share of vanity" (Beauties, Vol. 3, 14). Both Britton and Martin moved to the metropolis and engaged in a range of activities to make ends meet, bringing both of them into immediate contact with the burgeoning culture of optical entertainment. (Martin worked as a glass painter; Britton at one point helped operate a version of P.J. de Loutherbourg's famous moving-images show, the Eidophusikon.) We may want to account for all this as mere coincidence. But if we follow Ralph O'Connor's full consideration of the social profiles of a network of fossil hunters and geological exhibitors in the early nineteenth century, we might recognize that there were some more widely shared personal experiences and social destinies which must have helped shape their activities. Martin was closely linked professionally and personally with several of the scientific popularizers given as examples by O'Connor, men from unprivileged backgrounds who tended towards "simultaneously cultivating and repudiating 'vulgar' sensationalism," reflecting their desire for commercial success and their (perhaps competing) social and intellectual ambitions. Like the work of these men in publicizing their scientific discoveries, Martin tended to waver between outright sensationalism and a strenuous attention to detail. His paintings and mezzotints may often be big and spectacular, but he went to great lengths to tell viewers that they were based on a close reading of historical, geographical, and poetic source materials in the illustrated pamphlets he issued to accompany these works. As O'Connor has discussed at length, Martin's pamphlets deserve to be treated as complex documents in their own right, drawing together scholarly, poetic, and imaginative materials and in so doing articulating an unsteady fusion of entertainment, commercialism, and didacticism. O'Connor's account alerts us to the way that while the images may seem to amount to a sort of instantaneously satisfying spectacle, the accompanying texts direct us to take our time, to consider, reflect, and even study, thus articulating a decided tension between sensationalism and intellectual seriousness.

14.         One of O'Connor's examples is William Bullock, whose Egyptian Hall was the premier or at least the most prominent museum space in the early nineteenth century, where "edification was inseparable from theatricality" (37-8). Which brings us to Martin's Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum, first exhibited as the centerpiece of his one-man show at the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly, London, which opened with a private viewing at the end of March 1822 and remained open until the end of July. While the drawing of Avebury is a topographical design for an antiquarian publication which has a certain sublime enhancement, The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum is very obviously a sublime entertainment which, nonetheless, participates in a topographical and antiquarian viewing dynamic.

15.         The Egyptian Hall had previously been the venue for a series of successful art exhibitions focused on spectacular works, such as Haydon's Christ's Triumphant Entry into Jerusalem, shown in 1820, Théodore Gericault's The Raft of the Medusa in 1820 and James Ward's vast allegory of Waterloo in 1821. Martin's show ran alongside a program of varied entertainments, including an exhibition on Lapland featuring actual Laplanders in full costume with a sleigh and live reindeer, before a panoramic backdrop (January 15-April 4), the annual exhibition of the Society of Painters in Watercolour (April 23-June 29), "The Terror of India" , featuring a gigantic snake and other terrifying animals (from late July), and the "African Museum of Natural History" (from October) (see Costeloe). The exhibition was accompanied by a 31-page pamphlet, which was dominated by a lengthy description of the painting (No.1 in the catalogue and taking up 25 pages) and a line etching providing a key to the important people and buildings in the cities and itemizing some thirty-two geographical, figural, and architectural points of interest ("The Villa Suburbina . . . Granary wherein were found measures with false bottoms . . . The Gate of Nola . . . Pliny embracing his friend Pomponianus . . . The Sea agitated by the earthquake, and retiring..."). The other twenty-four catalogued items were paintings and drawings also by Martin. These included some of the small topographical paintings and watercolors from earlier in his career; the large Fall of Babylon, which was illustrated in an etched key with a briefer note of "Historical Accounts" "strictly attended to" in producing the painting and, as No. 26 "Plan of the Country, shewing the situation of the Cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum; also the portion of the country included in the picture No. 1" (Pompeii). Martin was able to refer to Edwin Atherstone's recent poem on the theme, and to Sir William Gell's and Joseph Gandy's scholarly work Pompeiana (1817–19) to elucidate his presentation of the disaster. He was particularly at pains to insist upon the correct "scale of proportion" he had applied in representing the scene from the elevated position of Stabiae, and appears to have included as part of the exhibition, besides the map listed as No. 26, further supporting topographical, cartographical, and antiquarian materials for visitors to consult:

The elevation of the foreground, in which the principal figures are seen, is three hundred and forty-eight feet above the level of the sea; an elevation, according to the statement of the most intelligent travellers, more than sufficient to enable the spectator to take into view every city, within the angle of vision represented in this picture.
For further explanation of this part, the reader is referred to the maps and plans which are in the exhibition room; and which shew the attention that has been given to place every known object in its true situation, according to the best authorities. (Pompeii, 24)
A correspondent in the Literary Gazette, who had criticisms about the painting itself, noted that "Diagrams carefully drawn, and laid down on the table, opposite the picture, may lead to the understanding of it in a geographical point of view" (April 27, 1822).

16.         The painting was promoted in advertisements as "the most extraordinary production of the pencil that has ever appeared in this or any other country" (Morning Chronicle, March 29, 1822). The fact that Martin chose to make the painting the centerpiece of an exhibition that followed immediately after the huge popular successes of Joshua and Belshazzar's Feast is in itself telling, of course. Other commentators were hardly less enthusiastic in their praise. Ackermann's Repository claimed that:

It is a powerful address to the imagination, and upon a subject which enabled the artist to indulge the full latitude of his conceptions. The blue lightening has a vigorous effect, and saves the picture from the absolute tyranny of a scarlet tone. The horror of the scene is much increased by the destruction of shipping from the receding and agitation of the sea. The total helplessness of man is shown in the various and ineffectual efforts of human beings vainly endeavouring to escape from the general calamity. Mr. Martin has adhered to the historian's record of the catastrophe, which realised all the horror which the most vivid fancy could paint. (301)
The Examiner (April 7, 1822) acknowledged some faults with the painting, but proposed that "the work is more complete than any previously painted by this Artist."

17.         In many ways John Martin's Avebury and Destruction of Pompeii and Hercualenuem occupy separate ends of a spectrum of landscape imagery. Avebury is a relatively modestly-sized graphic work, attending to the archaeological record in its presentation of a "benign" landscape scene and destined for the relatively rarefied context of antiquarian research, albeit as it was transforming into "tourism" as we might now understand it. The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum sits at the most extravagant and outlandish end of imaginative landscape painting, with its catastrophic theme, emphatic coloring, and display of the sublime so over-emphatic it exceeded the bounds of acceptable taste (and moved, as many contemporary critics complained, beyond the realm of painting into the phantasmagorical). If traditional criteria were crudely applied, we would have a vivid illustration of the poles of mere topography or "map work" and imaginative landscape. But both works unsettle that opposition. Avebury is a work of imagination, making visible the "mystic halo" surrounding the site that drew Britton into his researches, even as he struggled with his skepticism and towards rationalism. Pompeii and Herculaneum is also a work of "the historian's record" in which the specificities of geography are evoked, even as the viewer may be overawed or even inspired to spiritual reflection. Both may cast light on what Iain McCalman has recently characterized as a "tension between the odious popularity of commercial reenactment and the respectable austerity of academic art" in the urban entertainments of the Romantic era (214).

18.         My point is that, even as the opposition of topographical and antiquarian imagery to "art" was confirmed in the early nineteenth century, the possibilities for a much more productive confusion of categories was being actively entertained, for personal, professional, and commercial reasons, with the sublime providing a means for legitimizing such departures. If we revisit Fuseli's famously decisive comments on landscape and "map work" we can note that he in fact counts landscape among "negative subjects" which "owe what they can be to the Genius of the artist" (Baumgarten 127), a point which would have been made more emphatically in passages deleted from the original manuscript:

Our own school in this very branch has embodied scenes of nature so novel, real combinations so original or charming with so much taste equal Judgement & powers of execution, that the transcript vanishes in the choice of Genius. Such is the display of oriental grandeur in ruins or still subsisting, such as the aweful scenery of Wales & the romantic windings of our rivers . . . There are scenes of Nature in themselves so novel, with features so original, charming & astonishing; real combinations so curious & unusual, that nothing but a judicious Transcript is wanted, to impress us with all the effects of Genius. (qtd. in Baumgarten I.141-142nn)
There can be no reasonable doubt that Fuseli's identification of topography as a "kind of map work" was rightly interpreted at the time and latterly as suggesting a strongly hierarchical distinction between descriptive and imaginative landscape painting, to the extent that John Britton, no less, went into print (with the encouragement of J.M.W. Turner) to refute Fuseli's allegations against "representations of particular scenes" (from Fine Arts of the English School, 1812; quoted and discussed in Smiles, Eye Witness, 64-5). Nonetheless, the drafting of this passage at least makes room for a more nuanced position, one which would help explain Fuseli's known admiration of Turner, the artist who perhaps more than any other would exemplify the possibility that the recording of nature could also be sublime. Even with a critic as apparently stringent as Fuseli, topographical and imaginative landscape edge towards each other and blur together, most especially with regard to the antiquarian topics which could be read as sublime ("oriental grandeur in ruins . . . the aweful scenery of Wales").

19.         Reconsidering Fuseli's comments, alongside Martin's images, may help lead us back into a richer understanding of the place of antiquarian imagery in the early nineteenth century, and beyond the art history of landscape into a consideration of the much more untidy and confusing historical genesis of heritage. From that perspective, the mobilization after the 1760s of the sublime as a conceptual framework demanding unreliable, unpredictably subjective reflections on sites, sights, and history may appear not (or not only) as a key moment in the emergence of a heroically dignified landscape art, but also as a challenge to the historical ascent of those disciplinary norms which would segregate the scientific from the imaginative, entertainment from scholarship. Such extravagant topography or bombastic antiquarianism as is evident in Martin's images under consideration here puts up obstacles to our sense of the "progress" of art and of knowledge in the early nineteenth century. Reflecting particularly on the history of the representation and interpretation of Avebury, David C. Harvey comments on "[s]mall heritages" and "the inevitable open-endedness of the everyday 'pieces' and 'performances' of heritage, which it is impossible to date or categorize—the ordinary, conscious and unconscious elaboration and repetition of cultural memory that has both history and prehistory, but which has no beginning or end" (33). This might also lead us to emphasize the enduring interplay between scientific and imaginative antiquarianism. We could, then, trace a continuity between Britton's acknowledgement of "The mystic halo which enveloped it, tended rather to awaken than repress research," and Smiles's note, in his study of the image of British antiquity in Romanticism, that:

While investigating second hand book shops for various tomes relevant to this project it was not unusual to find serious studies such as Stuart Piggott's The Druids (1968) and AL Owen's The Famous Druids (1962) shelved under "occult" rather than "archaeology" or similarly sober classifications. Was this a bookseller's attempt to subvert the Druidic lunatic fringe by infiltrating works that debunked the romantic image, or was it an ironic indication that, where Druids are concerned, archaeology was subordinate to a more whimsical approach? (75)
Thus, too, Harvey's highlighting of the "extreme 'relativism'" at play around Avebury as a physical site, with "the 'official' heritage story . . . competing with New Age interpretations of the site: the heritage of ley lines, mystical occurrences and spiritual healing." Such stark juxtapositions between the legitimate and the eccentric may be read only as the signs of confusion, or of a discipline in crisis, the decline of scientific knowledge, or some such. But the commercially-oriented antiquarianism of the early nineteenth century anticipated these juxtapositions and provided individuals like John Martin and John Britton—equally from barely lettered, economically vulnerable backgrounds—a route in and through metropolitan literary and artistic culture. At precisely those points where both landscape art and antiquarianism seem to be compromised, eccentric, or marginal—in the romantic enhancement of Avebury's image, or in the topographical specificity which is mobilized in support to a scene of outrageous blockbuster disaster directed towards a commercialised market for art—we might also discover opportunities for individual engagement and commercial exploitation which gave shape to a modern understanding of history.

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Notes

[1] See Balston, 86; I have previously assumed this dating in Myrone 2011, nos. 18-19). BACK

[2] Volume II had appeared as long ago as 1801, and Britton felt compelled to include an introductory autobiographical statement detailing everything else he had done since, as a form of apology to the reader BACK

[3] News that the illustrations to the prospective third volume would include one showing "the immense Druidical Temple of Avebury" was in print in 1815 (New Monthly Magazine, 4: 1815, 423), and this may indicate that Martin was already engaged on the project. A watercolor by Britton showing Avebury from the north corresponds with Martin's drawing in some general respects but suggests a lower viewpoint and a different angle. This is dated to as early as 1815 (following an inscription on the back of the support) (Wiltshire Heritage Museum; see Hatchwell, no.8). Other related drawings of Avebury by Britton (in the same collection) are dated from 1805 to 1821. BACK

[4] It was not noted in Mary Pendered's pioneering biographical study of 1923, nor even in Thomas Balston's thorough and still-important monograph of 1947, nor in the catalogue listing of drawings prepared independently by the poet Ruthven Todd earlier in the 1940s (Todd), nor in the listing of illustrations by Martin which Todd passed to Balston (Todd and Balston). The drawing was only brought to Balston's attention in 1948 by the poet Geoffrey Grigson who, tellingly, was a pioneering writer on the sublime in British art and associated with current "Neo-Romanticism" (letter of 5 February 1948, private collection). Grigson himself was to write about Avebury in the context of illustrated country guides aimed at latter-day antiquarian adventurers: The Wiltshire Book (1957) and Wiltshire: An Introduction (1963). The romantic vision of primitive England presented by Martin's design certainly chimes with the new interest in prehistoric remains current among several modern British visual artists, particularly Paul Nash; (see Haycock, 54-8 and Smiles, "Equivalents" ). Balston planned a new edition of his monograph; although this never emerged, he prepared a note in manuscript prompted by Grigson's information, dismissing the drawing as "rather a diagram than a work of art." The design was noticed in Christopher Johnstone's brief survey of Martin's art (Johnstone 18) but overlooked in William Feaver's full monograph of 1975 (a book which has exercised considerable influence over subsequent commentaries on the artist). More recently, the print was discussed and illustrated in Sam Smiles's Ancient Britons and the Romantic Imagination (1994), and both print and drawing were displayed as part of the recent Tate Britain exhibition John Martin: Apocalypse (2011-12), although only in the context of a range of materials dating from the early stages of Martin's professional career and intended thereby to illustrate the range of often rather prosaic artistic work undertaken by him before his reputation became established (Myrone John Martin, cat. nos. 18-19). BACK

[5] Both were part of a short-lived convivial club, The Pot Luck Club, in London in the early 1820s and had numerous friends in common. In 1837 they were planning to share a coach to a conversazione, and as late as 1849 Martin wrote expressing his huge admiration for the "arduous labors, and great success in advancing art and architecture" of the topographer while seeking to acquire plates from him to complete his collection of his works (letters from Martin to Britton, Edinburgh University Library, Special Collections La.II.426 and La.II.648). Britton, meanwhile, once wrote privately: "Of Martin's genius no one ever thought more highly—more devotedly—than myself—I have often written and spoken his praises" (qtd. in Todd and Balston, f.36). BACK

Published @ RC

June 2014