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John Martin (1789-1854) was born at Haydon Bridge near Newcastle, and in 1803 at the age of 14 moved to that city to take up the post of apprentice to a coach-builder.  In 1804 he met Boniface Musso, an Italian master-painter, from whom he received some artistic instruction, and through whom he became acquainted with two important engravers, Bartolozzi and Schiavonetti.  In 1806 he moved to London and for a few years worked in a glass and china painting business owned by Musso’s son Charles.  In 1809 he married and after the collapse of Charles’s business was employed as a glass-painter by the firm of William Collins.  His early struggles are related by him in his Sketches of my Life.

He had been producing small watercolours and sepia sketches for several years, but in 1811 he had a major oil-painting, entitled  A Landscape Composition, hung at the Royal Academy.  A year or so later he left his job at Collins, feeling confident enough to embark upon a career as a professional artist.  Between 1812 and 1816 he supported himself and his family “teaching – painting small oil pictures, glass and enamel paintings, watercolour drawings; in fact, the usual tale of a struggling artist’s life” (Sketches of my Life).  But during the same period he was experimenting with large canvases, and has also tried his hand at etching, translating some of his small drawings onto the copper plate.

In 1816 came a turning-point, with the exhibition at the Royal Academy of Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still upon Gibeon, the first of the major large spectacular oils for which he is now famous.  The painting in fact measures about five feet by seven and  a half, and the multitude of figures are dwarfed by the immensity and the sense of mass of the landscape.  Of course, Martin’s main artistic interest in the preceding years had been in landscape, but now the massive increase in scale had been accompanied by an equal increase in weight and substance, and, equally interesting and innovative, in motion.

Further success followed.  Joshua was re-exhibited at the Royal Institution in 1817, to even greater acclaim.  In 1819 Martin sold his painting The Fall of Babylon for 400 guineas, which liberated him from debt.  That painting exemplified his interest in architectural mass and perspective, whilst paintings such as Macbeth (1819) refelcted his love of landscape.  In a sense, these two sides of his artistic expression sprang from the same root – the desire to manifest the sense of great mass and substance, whether it be the creation of God or Man.   In 1821 he exhibited the greatest and still the most famous of his large paintings, Belshazzar’s Feast, and a year later he sold The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum for 500 guineas.

At this point in his career he was being asked to produce prints of his great paintings so that the public demand for copies might be met.  At first his idea was to etch the outlines of his designs on large copper plates which would then be passed to specialist mezzotint engravers to complete.  Mezzotint seemed the ideal medium to reproduce the swirling skies and ragged heights of his work.  (For mezzotint, a plate is treated with a ‘rocker’, an engraving tool which has the effect of raising a fine burr over all of its surface, so that if inked and printed it would print solid black.  The “engraver” then produces the design by scraping off this burr to varying levels:  if completely removed, the result when printed is blank, or white.  The overall effect of mezzotint printing is a velvety texture, amenable to gentle gradations of shade.  It was extensively used in the late eighteenth century for portraits, where it could beautifully express the soft folds of clothing and drapery, and the misty distances behind the sitters.)  He asked Charles Turner, one of the foremost engravers of the time, to work on the plate of Joshua he had prepared, and later G.H. Phillips to execute similar work on a plate of his Pan and Syrinx.  The agreement with Turner specified a fee ” not exceeding 500 guineas”, which gives some idea of the prestige attached to the process of engraving at the time.  (Twenty years earlier, when John Boydell had commissioned paintings and engravings of those paintings for his Shakespeare Gallery, the engravers were usually paid many times the fees paid to the artists!  The art of engraving was viewed in quite a different light from that of the modern age.)

But Martin subsequently cancelled the contract with Turner, and decided to engrave his own works with his own hands – a bold decision, given the little experience he had in the practice of mezzotinting.  It has been suggested by Michael Campbell, author of the definitive bibliography of Martin, that he was influenced by the creative flexibility of the medium as demonstrated by the other engraver, Phillips, who was able by skilful alteration to completely change the subject of the Pan and Syruinx plate.  Moreover it was unusual at this time for a painter to engrave plates of his own work, let alone to engrave original designs straight onto the plate, as Martin did. (It was thought quite out of the ordinary, for instance, that Turner should be involved in etching the original outlines of his designs of the plates for the Liber Studiorum.)  By 1824 he had produced a number of small mezzotints, and in the same year he was approached by a publisher, Samuel Prowett, who proposed the production of twenty-four mezzotints to illustrate a new edition of Paradise Lost, for which Martin was to be paid 2,000 guineas.  Martin eagerly undertook the engraving of these plates, which were completed during the course of 1824 and 1825, as well as a second series of plates in slightly smaller format.  (The images on the larger plates measure about 20 x 27 cms. or vice versa, the smaller ones about 15 x 21 cms.)  The volumes were published in 1827.

The plates for Paradise Lost were engraved on steel, and represent some of the earliest steel engravings, and certainly the earliest steel plate mezzotints published.  Before 1820 nearly all metal engraving had used copper plates, the softness of the metal making them amenable to the engraving tools.  But around 1820 Thomas Lupton had perfected plates of soft steel, which, though still not as soft as copper (and therefore not providing quite the same degree of artistic freedom in the use of the graver) could now be engraved without difficulty.  The new steel plates were much more resistant to wear than copper and could therefore produce many more impressions before any re-engraving was necessary.

The innovation caused a revolution in the production of prints.  In a single decade steel had ousted copper as the prime material for printing plates: in 1820 99% of metal engraving plates were of copper; by 1830 probably 80% were of steel, and as the century progressed the steel plate soon became the normal choice for the engraver.  The harder texture of the material, its ability to accept finer and closer lines and greater detail, changed the nature of intaglio printing.  This change was more evident in pure line engraving, but Martin was dealing primarily with mezzotint, though his plates do contain others forms of engraving, such as drypoint.  It is arguable that a mezzotint scraped from a steel plate has a slightly different appearance to one scraped from a copper plate; and theoretically the harder metal should allow for a finer burr, offering the possibility of a denser blackness and finer gradations of darkness, which may have aided or helped to form Martin’s conceptions.  Martin, unusually, designed his images on the plate, not from prepared drawings, demonstrating his enthusiasm for the process of engraving.  He also involved himself in the whole process of printmaking, frequently supervising the printing of his plates and setting up his own printing-room in the basement of his house in order that he might experiment with techniques of inking and printing.  And in the late 1820s he also published many of his own prints.

The Paradise Lost mezzotints were a huge success, both commercially and in terms of Martin’s artistic prestige.  At the same time as he was working on them, he produced a large mezzotint of Belshazzar’s Feast, which was published in 1826.  And he continued to produce his large, spectacular oils – in 1825 The Creation, in 1826 The Deluge.  He was now at the height of his fame, which was perhaps the source of a certain amount of jealousy, and criticism from other artists who saw his type of art as showy or cheap.  And throughout his career he felt slighted by the Royal Academy, which he believed had denied him recognition as an important artist.

In 1829 his brother Jonathan set fire to York Minster, and was declared insane and detained in Bethlem Hospital, where he died in 1838.  John, however, had by now perfected his engraving technique, and continued his ferocious programme of work, producing his famous Illustrations of the Bible in 1831, and many fine watercolours, whilst also working on his project to provide London with a new system of water-supply and drainage.  During the 1830s, however, his fortunes began to decline; despite the fact the standard of his work in mezzotint, watercolour, and even lithography, was at its height, he could not translate it into commercial success.  By 1837 he was almost bankrupt.   The next year sold his plates for the Illustrations of the Bible to the publisher Charles Tilt, who already had some of the Milton plates.  By 1848 he had sold off most of his major plates and closed his printing-room.  His last major work, completed shortly before his death in 1854, was the trilogy of huge oil paintings, The Last Judgement, The Great Day of His Wrath, and The Plains of Heaven.

Editions of Martin’s plates for Paradise Lost

Apart from separately-issued sets of proofs without text, in 1827 Prowett published four editions of the work:

Imperial Folio, about 55cms. tall, containing lettered proofs of the large prints, limited to 50 copies;

Imperial Quarto, about 39 cms. tall, containing fully-lettered large prints;

Imperial Quarto, about 39 cms. tall, containing lettered proofs of the small prints, limited to 50 copies;

Imperial Octavo, about 28 cms. tall, containing fully-lettered small prints.

Each edition was issued in twelve monthly parts intended to be purchased by subscription.  Single prints were also available.

Later editions:

>1833:  Octavo edition of the small prints published in parts by Charles Tilt;

1833:  Octavo edition published by Charles Tilt containing the small prints;

1838:  Octavo edition published by Charles Tilt containing the small prints;

1846:  Quarto or Folio edition, published by Charles Whittingham, about 37 cms. tall, containing the small prints;

1849:  Large Octavo edition, published by Henry Washbourne, about 29(?)cms. tall, containing the small prints;

1850:  Large Octavo edition, published by Henry Washbourne, about 29(?)cms. tall, containing the small prints;

1853:  Imperial Quarto edition, published by Henry Washbourne, containing the large prints;

1853:  Large Octavo edition, published by Henry Washbourne, about 29(?)cms. tall, containing the small prints;

1858:  Large Octavo edition, published by Henry Washbourne, 29 cms. tall, containing the small prints;

1866:  Folio edition, published by Sampson, Low, 38 cms. tall, containing the large prints.

It is probable that some re-engraving of Martin’s small plates began when they passed into the hands of Charles Tilt, and continued during the publication of subsequent editions.  This re-engraving was not usually of high quality, and tended to be confined to the more obvious features of the designs; as time went on, the subtle lines and tones of Martin’s backgrounds tended to disappear.  However, it should be said that between the first Tilt edition of 1833 and the Washbourne editions of 1849/50 the deterioration in the prints is slight, only apparent under magnification, and mainly due to a loss of definition in the detail, which can be attributed to natural wear.  And during this period at least, the publishers seem to have been cautious in interfering with Martin’s work.  The large plates were also re-engraved for the editions of Whittingham and Sampson Low, and this work was generally of good quality.

Because different plates tended to wear at different rates, and because repair and re-engraving were executed ad hoc, in these later editions the plates in any single edition are unlikely to be in uniform state, and moreover any two examples of the same edition may contain the same plate in differing states of preservation.

Moreover, there are rare examples, not recorded in the bibliography, of later editions containing the original smaller proofs, as distinct from re-engraved plates to which the word “proof” has been added: (see, for example, book No. 1027BS in the catalogue).  There are also examples of late editions containing what appear to be early non-proof impressions.  In short, it cannot be assumed that the state of the plates in any edition conforms with rational expectations for that edition.  It is possible that early impressions of the plates passed from Prowett to later publishers along with the plates themselves.

[The factual content of this article is largely based on the standard bibliography of Martin’s work, John Martin, 1789-1854: Creation of Light by Michael J. Campbell, Valencia 2006.]


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