John Martin

Plate from ‘Illustrations to the Bible’: Moses Breaketh the Tables

published 1833

In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
John Martin 1789–1854
Mezzotint on paper
Image: 188 × 290 mm
Purchased 1987

Display caption

Martin’s biblical illustrations were his most well-known and widely shared images. Their theatrical imagery often inspired early filmmakers, who used them as source material.

Gallery label, August 2019

Does this text contain inaccurate information or language that you feel we should improve or change? We would like to hear from you.

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).

T04895 Moses Breaketh the Tables pub.1834

Mezzotint 188 × 290 (7 3/8 × 11 3/8) on paper 287 × 430 (11 1/4 × 16 7/8); plate-mark 267 × 360 (10 1/2 × 14 1/8)

Engraved inscriptions: ‘Designed and Engraved by John Martin. | MOSES BREAKETH THE TABLES. | London, Published May 23d. 1833, by John Martin, 30, Allsop's Terrace, New Road | Messrs Ackermann & Co. - A Paris, chez M. Victor Morlot, Passage Vivienne, No. 25 | PART VII.’ all below image at centre; ‘PROOF’ below image b.l.; ‘Deposé’ below image b.r.

Lit: Balston 1947, Appendix 9a, no.11 (13); Wees and Campbell 1986, Checklist, p.81, no.104; Campbell 1992, p.141, no.104, repr. (different impression)

An illustration of Exodus 32:19. This plate exists either with the date as inscribed on T04895 or with the date ‘March 14. 1834’; the latter is approximately the date of its actual publication (Wees and Campbell 1986, p.52). Its companion print in Part VII was the ‘Fall of the Walls of Jericho’.

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

You might like

In the shop