Tate Gallery’s Pompeii painting comes to Somerset

AS part of the Museum of Somerset’s Spotlight Loan programme, from 23rd March to 2nd June 2024, the Tate Gallery is lending The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum (1822) by John Martin. It is a vast and vividly colourful work which caused a public sensation when it was first shown. It also has an important connection to Somerset through the forgotten friendship of John Martin and the poet and music master Edwin Atherstone.

For many years Atherstone lived in a house adjoining Taunton Castle and formed a strong friendship with Martin as a result of their shared interest in epic and apocalyptic themes. In 1821 Atherstone published his poem, The Last Days of Herculaneum, which may well have been written and discussed with Martin in Taunton. Martin’s related painting was exhibited at the Egyptian Hall, Piccadilly, in the following year and quickly attracted awestruck crowds. Advertisements described it as “the most extraordinary production of the pencil that has ever appeared in this or any other country”.

Sarah Cox, exhibitions manager for the South West Heritage Trust, says: “Measuring more than eight feet wide, the painting was the centrepiece of a solo exhibition in March 1822. More than 200 years after it first went on display, we’re very pleased to be exhibiting the painting at the museum and uncovering its forgotten Somerset connections.”

The exhibition will feature related materials from the Atherstone collection held by the South West Heritage Trust. They include letters referring to the friendship of Martin and Atherstone and Martin’s mezzotint, The Fall of Nineveh (1830), the largest engraving he ever produced. Atherstone’s epic poem of the same name was published two years earlier, again demonstrating the themes and inspirations the friends shared.

In 1928 the The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum was declared damaged beyond repair when the Thames broke its banks and flooded the basement of the Tate Gallery. In 2010 Tate began a successful restoration project and two years later the painting went on display in the exhibition John Martin: Apocalypse.

Helen Legg, director of Tate Liverpool and Tate’s national partnerships, says: “We’re delighted to be loaning John Martin’s extraordinary painting to the Museum of Somerset. Partnering with museums and galleries across Great Britain is central to what Tate exists to do, ensuring access to the national collection for as many people as possible.”

The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum will be on display at the Museum of Somerset, Tuesday to Saturday, from 23rd March to 2nd June 2024. With free entry (donations welcome).

Visitors can discover more at a Talk and Tea with Tom Mayberry taking place on 10 May. Tom will also be leading Talks and Tours on 17th April and 22nd May. On 7th May geoarchaeologist Franki Gillis will give an online talk exploring natural disasters and climate change. Booking is required via museumofsomerset.org.uk