A vast painting of volcanic catastrophe by the British artist John Martin (1789–1854) is to be exhibited for the first time in almost a century. When the Thames flooded in 1928, The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum 1821 was widely considered to have been destroyed. After a painstaking restoration, it will be unveiled to the public on 21 September 2011 as part of Tate Britain’s major exhibition, John Martin: Apocalypse.

John Martin (1789–1854) was a key figure in the nineteenth-century art world, renowned for his dramatic scenes of apocalyptic destruction and biblical catastrophe. One of John Martin’s most ambitious works, this large oil painting depicts the devastating eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD with survivors fleeing the destruction of the Roman cities Pompeii and Herculaneum. Measuring over eight feet across, it was the centrepiece of Martin’s 1822 solo exhibition at the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly, where advertisements described it as “the most extraordinary production of the pencil that has ever appeared in this or any other country”. Originally commissioned by the Duke of Buckingham and Chandos, it was later sold by an art dealer to the National Gallery. It was transferred to Tate in 1918, by which time Martin’s reputation had declined substantially, and remained in storage until a severe Thames flood in 1928 badly damaged the painting and its remains were considered irreparable.

Recent interest in Martin’s work and plans for a new exhibition led Tate to unroll the remains and begin a major restoration project in 2010. Saturated with river water and under layers of discoloured varnish, the painting was painstakingly cleaned by conservator Sarah Maisey, Clothworkers Fellow. The section depicting the volcano and the cities had been completely destroyed, leaving the scene difficult for viewers to understand. Digitally tracking viewers’ eye movements also showed that viewer attention was distracted by the lost section of the painting. A new piece of canvas was therefore carefully reinstated and repainted, drawing on photographs, a smaller painted replica of the composition by Martin and an outline etching of the original work. The new areas of painting deliberately played down the level of detail, so that Martin’s original work could be distinguished on close inspection without compromising the power of the scene as a whole.

The restored painting will now be exhibited for the first time in almost a century as part of John Martin: Apocalypse, the largest display of Martin’s work seen in public since 1822. At Tate Britain from 21 September 2011 to 15 January 2012, the exhibition will reassess this singular figure in art history, and reveal the enduring influence of his apocalyptic art on painting, cinema and popular spectacle.

Martin Myrone, Curator, Tate Britain, said: “John Martin was a truly popular artist in his own day. His images touched the lives of thousands of ordinary people in Britain and around the world, but his reputation has suffered from art-world snobbery and misunderstanding. The restoration work that has brought this painting back to life shows us why his art was so extraordinarily popular, and will help to re-establish his place in the history of British art.”