Wednesday, 17 July 2019

Favourite Paintings: John Martin 'The Bard'

One of the first paintings I ever saw in a gallery was 'The Bard' by John Martin in the Laing Gallery in Newcastle, probably in 1976. Back then it hung on the wall high above the stairs where they made a final turn to the first floor. I don't think anything's been hung there for years and it's just a blank wall these days.

John Martin was a local boy made good. He was born in Northumberland not far from Newcastle in 1789 and he became one of the most famous painters of his day. He painted huge paintings and went on tour with the paintings around the country. There was an excellent exhibition of his work at Tate Britain in 2011, the first major exhibition of his work for many years. 'The Bard' is quite large but is dwarfed by his huge canvases with their vast, panoramic scenes. It is, however, a typical Martin painting with it's intense romantic subject matter.

The painting tells the tale of the last Bard in Wales, hunted down by Edward I's army and who throws himself off the cliff to certain death to avoid being captured. It's a mythical tale and typically romantic, being featured in a poem by Thomas Gray, but Martin takes the tale and runs with it to make it dramatic and bold, a brave Bard, the last of his kind cursing and defying the king, trusting his body to the river below rather than to the soldiers. Martin chooses the moment before he plunges to his death in the foaming river below. Wild eyed, his cloak billowing in the wind, the Bard holds his harp and raises his hand to lay his curse on the English king and his army. And, of course, we know he jumps shortly afterwards, giving his life to make sure the curse works.

Of course, the mountains of Wales are nothing like those in the painting and it's thought that these are based on prints of the Alps that Martin would have seen. Does that matter? Of course not. In the world of the painting this is an impossibly romantic scene and needs a suitable backdrop.

The huge army winding along and down the mountain on the left-hand side is huge, winding up and around the mountain passes and valleys. It's an impossibly huge army to put into rough mountains and it would be very foolish to have so many men chasing down one old man, particularly on those magnificent horses. But that's not the point. What matters is the tale the story Martin is telling.

The army shows the power of the king, with all this might pitted against an old man with a harp but we know that old man has power too and he doesn't need an army to back him up. His powers are ancient and mystical and come from the land he stands on.

This is a painting to awaken the imagination of anyone who is open to it, who starts to wonder about what's going on in the painting in front of them and immerse themselves in the tale. John Martin didn't paint pretty pictures, he painted tales and flights of the imagination, taking the viewer on a journey to who knows where. Is it any surprise that this painting has stuck with me over the years?

I try to visit the Laing Gallery whenever I visit Newcastle. It has an interesting collection and changes its displays quite regularly so I'm almost always guaranteed to see some paintings I've never seen before. John Martin's great works are always on display. Take a look the next time you're in Newcastle, entry to see the collection is free and it's a great way to get some peace from the people and traffic outside on the streets.

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