Room 3

John Martin exhibition banner

‘All the spirit and finish of the Painter’s touch’
The Mezzotints, c.1824–1837

In the late 1810s and early 1820s Martin had experimented with various printmaking techniques. In 1824 he mastered mezzotint and received an extraordinarily lucrative commission to produce mezzotint illustrations to John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost. He now concentrated on printmaking rather than oil painting as a means of making money out of his art.

The Paradise Lost prints were applauded for their technical invention and poetic power. Although mezzotint was traditionally used as a way of reproducing paintings, Martin’s prints were original compositions and were marketed as having ‘all the spirit and finish of the Painter’s touch’.  The prints were sold across the world, and Martin’s fame and influence spread.

Martin went on to produce large separate mezzotints of biblical scenes and ventured a new, self-published series illustrating the Bible. The latter faltered, and Martin’s attempt to establish himself as an independent publisher ultimately failed. Although he largely gave up printmaking by around 1837, his creative use of mezzotint is now generally considered as his central achievement as an artist.

Mezzotint – echnical note

Most of the prints in this room were produced using the technique of mezzotint. This form of printmaking involves using a special tool to roughen the entire surface of a metal plate, so that it resembles an exceptionally fine carpet pile. If covered with ink and sent through the printing press with a paper sheet pressed to it, the whole of the rough surface of the plate would retain ink and the printed image impressed onto the sheet would be solid black. The skill of mezzotint engraving involves the carefully selected and graded flattening of the surface so that it doesn’t catch ink, thus creating a tonally-defined design. It is usually used to reproduce an existing composition which can then be reprinted many times.

Belshazzar’s Feast 1826

In 1826 Martin announced plans to publish a mezzotint print of his most famous composition, Belshazzar’s Feast. His old employer, glass-painter William Collins, took him to court claiming that he was breaking the terms of a contractual agreement dating back to 1821. The painter’s defence was that the print reproduced not the large version of the painting owned by Collins, but the small ‘sketches’ which were still accessible to him. One such painted ‘sketch’ is on display here.

Despite these legal wrangles, Martin’s large mezzotint print was a huge success. In 1832 he republished the print, claiming (falsely) that it was a new engraving. Unfortunately the commercial success of the print was undermined by a host of pirated versions, copies and adaptations, as well as new copies that Martin had approved. A range of these derivations is displayed here. Together, these multiple versions helped make Belshazzar’s Feast one of the most internationally famous images of the nineteenth century.

Paradise Lost 1824–7

In 1824 Martin was contracted by the London publisher Septimus Prowett to produce mezzotint illustrations to John Milton’s famously sublime religious poem Paradise Lost (1667; revised edition 1674). The prints were published in series by subscription in 1825–7. They were an instant critical and commercial success.

The prints were issued in various formats aimed at different price levels of the market, and could be enjoyed as individual images or alongside the text in book form. Versions of individual larger plates can be seen here. A set of the smaller plates bound with Milton’s text can be seen on the table in the centre of this room.

The major mezzotints

In the late 1820s and 1830s Martin published a succession of highly ambitious separate mezzotint prints illustrating dramatic scenes from the Bible. These were highly admired at the time. Although some were based on existing paintings by the artist, he always adapted the original composition and sometimes transformed it dramatically. Others were original creations.

Martin published the prints from his home, and took great care mixing inks and overseeing the printing process on his own press. To make a profit, he needed to sell large numbers of the ‘proofs’, the high-priced first impressions printed when the engraved plate was at its most pristine. He gave away many of these proofs to newspaper editors and people he hoped would be influential and found that the cheaper standard prints sold better. Ultimately he was unable to maintain a profitable career as a self-publishing printmaker.

Illustrations of the Bible 1831–5

In 1831 Martin announced plans for an ambitious new series of Bible illustrations, which he would engrave in mezzotint, then print and publish himself. These were to be issued by subscription. Although the resulting prints were critically acclaimed, sales were not as high as he had hoped. Individual plates are displayed here: on the table in the centre of this room you can see how the prints were originally delivered to subscribers, in pairs in a paper folder. The presentation of the prints was not very professional, and Martin lacked a proper distribution network. He also undermined himself by agreeing to produce a series of Biblical illustrations on a more affordable format published by Edward Churton. These illustrations can also be seen on the table in this room.

Martin eventually sold the original steel plates for his mezzotint Bible illustrations. When reprinted by professional publishers they became much more commercially successful, although Martin did not profit from this new wave of sales.