Martin was born near Hexham, Northumberland. He was apprenticed first to an heraldic coach painter in Newcastle, and then to a china painter with whom he came to London in 1806. He exhibited at the Royal Academy from 1811, and at the British Institution, where he won premiums in 1817 and 1821. He designed various urban improvements for London, and painted some landscapes of the Thames Valley. He became paralysed in 1853 and died in Douglas, Isle of Man.
Martin is best-known as a painter of religious subjects and fantastic compositions. His paintings, typically vast landscapes and cityscapes peopled with a myriad of tiny figures, enjoyed great success, as did the engravings made from them. Among his principal pictures are Belshazzar's Feast, The Last Judgement, The Plains of Heaven, and The Great Day of His Wrath. Several of these were engraved by Martin himself. The engravings of The Deluge (1837) and two others were presented by the French Academy to Louis Phillippe who ordered a special medal to be struck and sent to Martin as a token of esteem. After the Belgian government bought The Fall of Ninevah, the Belgian Academy made Martin a member and the King of Belgium created him a Knight of the Order of Leopold.