On the night of 1 February 1829, Jonathan Martin felt his way from behind Archbishop Greenfield's effigy in the north transept of York Minster. "All was darkness: I could not see my hands before me," he later told the court. Using bell ropes as an improvised rope ladder, he clambered into the choir, prayed awhile, gathered hassocks and selected books into piles and set them alight. "I thought it a work of merit to burn prayer-books and music books," he explained, "but not to burn the Word of God."
Around eight the following morning flames burst through the roof. Horrific though the scene was, the people of York took to marvelling. One onlooker wrote of "an effect indescribably beautiful and grand". Another, an enraptured lady, was moved to cry out: "What a subject for John Martin!"
By then the fire-raiser was well on his way northwards to his place of origin in the Tyne valley, where he was soon arrested. At his trial back in York the following month he laughed a lot and was found insane. "I have made as much noise as Bonaparte ever did, I think," he remarked to the court. In the lunatic asylum of Bedlam – where the Imperial War Museum now stands – he remained cheerful, drew imaginatively and gave no trouble. He died 10 years later.
Two elder brothers, William and Richard, attended his trial but, although he paid for the defending counsel, Henry Brougham (a future lord chancellor), John – seven years Jonathan's junior – stayed in London where he had a large family, an establishment to maintain and a reputation to lose. Hadn't Sir Thomas Lawrence once toasted him, tongue slightly in cheek, as "the most popular painter of the day"? As it was, the notorious Jonathan, the most celebrated arsonist of the age, was rivalled in fearless assertion and eccentricity by both Richard, a visionary-minded poet, and William, a prolific inventor and self-styled "philosophical conqueror of all nations" who used to wander the Newcastle quayside wearing a tortoise shell as a hard hat and selling ballads on topics such as the firing of York Minster. They were all pretty embarrassing. No wonder that, for well over a century, brother John was to be popularly known as "Mad Martin".
Martin's vision of history – the cyclical occurrence of empire and civilisations, the loss of paradise, the unchanging pomposity of evil – fed not only his own art but, through his paintings and, even more, his prints, imagery of both Ancient and Modern. For while his pamphlets were relegated to archives, his massive reconstructions, his yawning perspectives and casts of thousands demonstrably influenced both railway architecture and movie epics (from DW Griffith to DeMille to King Kong). Indeed, in his attempts to recover from financial ruin brought on by the years spent on unrewarded efforts to improve things, he pioneered that genre embraced by many film producers: the remake. Bigger, with bluer distances and heftier impasto in the rockier places, his final works of the 1840s have the usual remake shortcomings. They look habitual. Not least the Last Judgement trilogy, more or less completed shortly before his death on the Isle of Man in 1854, in which the statutory damned and the saved, the good and the evil, paradise and urban chaos are posed in uttermost contrast.