Originally Posted by HSG
In 1928, London experienced the British equivalent of the Katrina flooding of New Orleans, a deluge so vast and unprecedented that it could have been painted by Martin himself. Among other acts of ruination, the deluge flooded the basements of the Tate, and so badly damaged The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum
(the painting was ripped in two, with one-quarter of the canvas being entirely torn away and eradicated), that it was considered irrevocably lost.
Not so irrevocably, as it turns out.
In the painting world's equivalent of the resurrection of the Frauenkirche
in Dresden, the Tate rediscovered this ruined canvas several years ago, and, in an ambitious reclamation plan timed to coincide with the current Martin exhibition, completely restored it, even allowing the missing quarter of the canvas to be repainted from scratch.
Fortunately, not only did the gallery possess historic photographs of the masterpiece recording its original appearance, but the University of Manchester owned a copy of the work, albeit on a much smaller scale, painted by Martin himself. Thus, the canvas was able to be accurately re-created--as accurately as the Frauenkirche was rebuilt.
The recovery of this painting is a fascinating story. An article in the Guardian describes the process in detail.
The original state of the painting, prior to reclamation, was abysmal. The comparison to the Frauenkirche is apt, given that the Dresden church was left as nothing but a mound of rubble and fragments after its barbaric destruction in WWII. It's remarkable to see how effectively the painting was recreated. Here's a before-and-after comparison, with the "before" image showing the frightening extent of the loss and the painting's general condition of disrepair.
For comparison, here's John Martin's own, smaller copy of the painting from the University of Manchester. The Tate restoration was clearly meticulously faithful and successfully restores Martin's masterpiece to its original condition, recovering Martin's sublime aesthetic vision.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the article about the restoration of the painting is that the Tate considered various proposals, including leaving the torn section missing (!), thus rendering the canvas nothing but a fragment, a ruin of a painting. Worse still, the gallery considered rendering the restored section in an abstract (i.e., modern) manner.
One proposed option for restoration was to omit some detail in the reconstructed section, allowing viewers to see all the main content of the painting while spending most of their time viewing the original sections...Our study demonstrated that such a viewing pattern could be created by filling the lost section with an abstracted version of the original content with less distinct details.
This would have been a travesty: cramming a modern, abstract section into a great historicist masterpiece. It would have created a visual clash even more jarring than leaving a gaping hole in the canvas. It's such a grotesquely modern idea that I'm amazed that wiser heads prevailed and that Martin's great painting was spared this indignity, which would have been typical of present-day resentment-driven, deconstructionist thinking.
Amazingly, I've read that the Tate show exhibits the University of Manchester copy of The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum
right alongside the restored original. The Tate clearly spared no effort in making this the greatest John Martin exhibition of all time. If there was ever a must-see exhibit devoted to a painter, this is it.