Apocalyptic visions

York Minster:  west front

York Minster: west front

John St John Long, the quack doctor who is buried at Kensal Green Cemetery, could have had an alternative, much less dangerous career.

One of his oil paintings, ‘The temptation in the wilderness’ (1824), belongs to the Tate Britain collection [http://www.tate.org.uk/servlet/ViewWork?workid=13062&searchid=25174].  Apparently, he spent the early 1820s as a painter of biblical subjects before turning to medicine.

His tutor was the apocalyptic painter, John Martin (1789-1854), a fascinating character who took time out of a commercially successful artistic career to support his eldest brother William’s career as an inventor, to join in the controversy over how to solve London’s sewage problem, and to care for his demented elder brother, Jonathan (1782-1838).

Jonathan Martin witnessed the murder of his sister, a trauma which he never overcame. At his confirmation he was “astonished at the wonderful size of the bishop”, and took to an abusive correspondence with clergymen, who tended to exclude him from their churches because of his antics.  He was for a time a Wesleyan minister, and was locked up for threatening to assassinate the Bishop of Oxford.

One missive began, “Blind Hypocrits, You serpents and vipers of Hell, you wine-bibbers and beef-eaters, whose eyes stand out with fatness…” and another made the more sinister prophecy, “You whitent sea pulkirs…your Gret Charchis and Minstairs will cume rattling down upon your Gilty Heads.”)

Perhaps someone should have kept a closer eye on Jonathan Martin.  On February 1st 1829 during evensong at York Minster he was apparently distressed by a buzzing in the organ, and concealed himself inside the building.  He started a fire, before escaping through a window, and succeeded in burning down the entire east end.  One of the bystanders remarked that the spectacle reminded him of one of John Martin’s canvases, not realising that the sight was the result of the artist’s brother’s work as an arsonist.

Jonathan Martin was committed to an asylum for the second time in his life, and remained there until his death.

York Minster suffered further fires in 1840, when a workman’s lamp set fire to the south-west tower, sending the bells to the ground “with a deep hollow sound” and gutting the nave, and again in 1984 when lightning set alight the roof of the south transept.

The south transept was restored by 1988.  Now there is a major campaign once again to safeguard the east end of the Minster.  See http://www.yorkminster.org.

The 44-page, A4 handbook for the 2009 Historic York tour, with text, photographs, and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £7.50 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here. To order a copy, please click here or, if you prefer, send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

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