John Martin

Plate from ‘Illustrations to the Bible’: Belshazzar’s Feast

published 1835

In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
John Martin 1789–1854
Mezzotint on paper
Image: 190 × 290 mm
Purchased 1987

Catalogue entry

[from] Illustrations of the Bible first pub.1832–5 [T04894-T04897]

Four mezzotints on wove paper from a series of twenty, various sizes
Purchased (Grant-in-Aid) 1987
Prov: ...; anon. sale, Sotheby's 27 June 1985 (in 174) bt William Weston Gallery from whom bt by Tate Gallery
Lit: Thomas Balston, John Martin 1789–1854: His Life and Works, 1947, pp.138–42, 287, Appendix 9a, no.11; J. Dustin Wees with contributions by Michael J. Campbell, ‘Darkness Visible: The Prints of John Martin, exh. cat., Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts 1986, pp.38–52, and Checklist, pp.80–1, nos.92–111; Printmaking in Britain 1775–1965, exh. cat., William Weston Gallery 1987, nos.91, 92, 93, 95, all repr.; Michael J. Campbell, John Martin, Visionary Printmaker, exh. cat., York City Art Gallery 1992, pp.120–50

The following four mezzotints are from a series of twenty, first published in parts between 1831 and 1835. Each part consisted of two prints, with the text accompanying each one printed on a separate piece of paper, enclosed in grey or brown paper wrappers. The price of each part was as follows: unlettered proofs, 4 guineas; lettered proofs, 2 guineas; lettered prints (in other words, the unlimited edition), 1 guinea. The date given in the publication line is not always the date when a print became available to the public: for example, Part 1 of the series, the prints in which are dated 21 March 1831, did not actually appear until 6 May (Athenaeum, 7 May 1831, p.304); and Part VI, the prints in which are dated 25 September 1833, was not reviewed in the press until January 1834, which suggests that its appearance was also delayed (Arnold's Magazine of the Fine Arts, new series, vol.3, no.3, Jan. 1834, pp.263–7).

Martin's prospectus for the Illustrations of the Bible, dated February 1831, announced a project that was far more ambitious than the one which was finally executed. It was to consist of forty illustrations to the Old and New Testaments and, providing there was sufficient demand, a special edition of the Bible was to be printed to accompany them. In fact, only the illustrations for the Old Testament were published and the plan for a Bible was abandoned.

The Illustrations of the Bible was the most ambitious artistic project of Martin's career. At the beginning the critics were predictably enthusiastic. One stated that ‘if ever there was an artist capable of grappling with the supernatural imagery of the Bible, it is Mr Martin... In those awful passages where truth is only shadowed forth, none ever seemed to penetrate the hidden mystery and to develop it with the power of this artist’ (Athenaeum, 16 April 1831, p.253).

However, the latter part of the publication history of the Illustrations is marked by the appearance of several rival projects which also set out to illustrate the Bible by means of part works. By 1834 Martin himself, along with the artist Richard Westall, had produced a series of drawings for engravings on wood for a much cheaper Illustrations of the Bible published by Edward Churton. The first of twenty-five monthly parts, each with four illustrations, of William Finden's Landscape Illustrations of the Holy Bible had started appearing and Cabinet Illustrations of the Holy Bible, in four parts of six plates each ‘to suit all the sizes of Bibles already published’, produced by the publisher of popular illustrated books, John van Voorst, was under way (Literary Gazette, 15 March 1834, p.199). Priced in shillings rather than guineas, these publications undoubtedly appealed to a far wider audience than did Martin's work and thus seriously harmed his prospects for success. It also seems that Martin further suffered from infringements of copyright, particularly from French sources. This is indicated by the presence on prints from Part II onwards (that is from after about September 1831) of the word ‘Déposé’ - a form of registering his sole rights in the image. This, combined with the increasing delays in the appearance of the separate parts, which in turn meant that the project commanded less critical attention, ensured that Martin's market became increasingly uncertain. Parts VIII, IX and X appeared simultaneously in June 1835, about a year after Part VII had been issued (The Atlas, 28 June 1835, p.409).

T04896 Belshazzar's Feast pub.1835

Mezzotint 190 × 290 (7 1/2 × 11 3/8) on paper cut to plate-mark 167 × 360 (10 1/2 × 14 1/8)
Engraved inscriptions: ‘Designed and Engraved by John Martin, K.L.B. | BELSHAZZAR'S FEAST.| London, Published May 1st 1835, by John Martin, 30, Allsop Terrace, New Road. | Messrs. Ackermann & Co - A Paris, chez M. Victor Morlot, Passage Vivienne, No.26 | PART IX’ all below image at centre; ‘PROOF’ below image b.l.; ‘Deposé’ below image b.r.

Lit: Balston 1947, Appendix 9a, no.11 (18); Wees and Campbell 1986, Checklist, p.81, no.109; Campbell 1992, p.148, no.109, repr. (different impression)

An illustration of Daniel 5. Its companion print in Part IX was ‘Psalm CXXXVII’. After the enormous success of his large oil painting ‘Belshazzar's Feast’, painted in 1820 and exhibited in London 1821, Martin published the same image, in an engraved form, though with slight variations in each case, on three different occasions: in 1826, in 1832, and for the Illustrations of the Bible. T04896 is a reversal of the original composition. For a full discussion of the 1820 painting see Robin Hamlyn, Belshazzar's Feast 1820, exh. cat., Tate Gallery 1989.

Published in:
Tate Gallery: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1986-88, London 1996


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