The Bard by John Martin

The Bard by John Martin (1817)

My Daily Art Display today looks at a painting and the poem which inspired the work of art.   The artist who painted the picture was the English Romantic painter John Martin and his work which I am featuring today is entitled The Bard which he completed in 1817.

Martin was born in 1789 in the small Northumbrian village of Haydon Bridge which lies close to Hexham.  He was the youngest of thirteen children.  He attended the local school an although he showed a talent for drawing was not academically gifted.   In 1804, his father arranged for him to become an apprentice coach painter in Newcastle in order for him to learn the art of heraldic painting but John was not happy with the work and this, coupled with problems with wages, resulted in the cancelation of Martin’s  indentures.   His father then arranged for him to be tutored by Boniface Musso, an artist who had come to the country from Italy.  In 1806 John Martin moved from Northumbria to London with Boniface Musso and his son Charles, who a few years later sets himself up in the china and glass business and employed John Martin.  Not long after however, the business of selling painted china fell out of fashion and Musso’s business failed.

John Martin moves out of the Musso household in 1809 when he marries Susan Garrett.  The following year John submits a painting of a water nymph entitled Clytie, to the Royal Academy but it is rejected.   In 1811 he was delighted when he has his painting A Landscape Composition accepted.  The following year, by which time he has become a full-time artist, he managed to get a second painting exhibited at the prestigious establishment entitled Sadak in Search of the Waters of Oblivion and it eventually sells for 50 guineas to the Member of Parliament and  Governor of the Bank of England, William Manning.    Many of his works of this time were large in size depicting grand biblical scenes.  During this period many people made the Grand Tour of the Middle East and the Holy Land and so Martin’s paintings became very fashionable.

The year 1813 was to prove a very sad and traumatic year for John Martin with both his mother and father as well as his grandmother and one of his sons, Fenwick, dying.  His painting continued after a period of mourning and still his subjects were mainly biblical and the enormous canvases often depicted scenes of apocalyptic death and destruction.  In 1814 there is another addition to his family with the birth of his fourth child, sadly however that same year his second son, John, dies.  More bad luck was to befall the artist as he submits another painting of a water nymph for inclusion at the Royal Academy but whilst it was waiting to be hung another artist, whilst touching up his painting,  accidentally spills some dark restorative varnish over it and his work is ruined.

Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still upon Gibeon by John Martin (1816)

In 1816 his fifth child Zenobia is born and in that year he exhibits his masterpiece Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still upon Gibeon and once again Martin’s obsession with depicting Old Testament scenes.  For the first time we see Martin, instead of depicting a solitary figure in his biblical scene,  has filled the location with a multitude of little figures both Palestinian and Isrealites, whilst the spear-brandishing figure of Joshua takes centre stage.

And so to 1817 and the year John Martin painted today’s featured painting, The Bard.  I was drawn to this work as it has a connection with the Conwy Valley, where I live and I like its connection to a poem, with the same name, written by by Thomas Gray in 1755.  In the poem Gray narrates the story of King Edward I of England and his conquest of Wales in the late 13th century.   Following his victory over the Welsh Edward decided that all the bards, the professional poets, could be dangerous if they were allowed to spread the story of the bygone power of the Welsh people as this may incite the defeated Welsh to rise up against their English masters.

Edward ordered the Bards to be slaughtered and the painting depicts the fate of the last surviving bard who has been chased by Edward’s troops and who has climbed a precipice above a swirling river.  He stands aloft cursing the English troops, who having left their castle, are in pursuit of their quarry .  The castle, based on the one at Harlech, we see perched on rocks in the left middle-ground.  In the left foreground we see Edward’s riders with banners unfurled as they rush along the valley side like a swarm of ants.  On the top of the cliff on the opposite side of the fast flowing river we observe the bard, cursing his pursuers before throwing himself off the ledge and plunging to his death.

The painting is an example of sublime landscape style, which was very popular at the time, in which the landscapes feature craggy mountains, similar to those seen in the Alps, instead of softer rounded ones.  Waterfalls and trees seem taller than in actuality and there is a certain savagery about the depiction of the vistas.  I leave you to look at this amazing painting and read extracts from Gray’s poem, The Bard.

“Ruin seize thee, ruthless King!
Confusion on thy banners wait!
Tho’ fanned by Conquest’s crimson wing,
They mock the air with idle state.
Helm, nor hauberk’s twisted mail,
Nor e’en thy virtues, Tyrant, shall avail
To save thy secret soul from nightly fears,
From Cambria’s curse, from Cambria’s tears!”
Such were the sounds that o’er the crested pride
Of the first Edward scattered wild dismay,
As down the steep of Snowdon’s shaggy side
He wound with toilsome march his long array.
Stout Glo’ster stood aghast in speechless trance:
“To arms!” cried Mortimer, and couched his quiv’ring lance.

On a rock, whose haughty brow
Frowns o’er cold Conway’s foaming flood,
Robed in the sable garb of woe
With haggard eyes the Poet stood;
(Loose his beard and hoary hair
Streamed like a meteor to the troubled air)
And with a master’s hand, and prophet’s fire,
Struck the deep sorrows of his lyre.
“Hark, how each giant-oak and desert-cave
Sighs to the torrent’s awful voice beneath!
O’er thee, O King! their hundred arms they wave,
Revenge on thee in hoarser murmurs breathe;
Vocal no more, since Cambria’s fatal day,
To high-born Hoel’s harp, or soft Llewellyn’s lay.


Enough for me: with joy I see
The diff’rent doom our fates assign.
Be thine Despair and sceptred Care;
To triumph and to die are mine.”
He spoke, and headlong from the mountain’s height
Deep in the roaring tide he plunged to endless night.