Original John Martin mezzotint with etching and touches of drypoint.
Outstanding Imperial Folio proof impression of the larger version of this subject, with velvety mezzotint burr and bright white highlights. Fully lettered proof on the largest format of paper, as issued for the extremely rare Imperial Folio edition which was limited to only 50 copies. This was the most splendid and most expensive subscribers’s version of the first edition of Paradise Lost to include John Martin’s illustrations, as published in parts by Septimus Prowett, 1826. Less than twenty complete sets of this large paper issue have been located worldwide.
Imperial Folio proofs, such as this, are the most highly prized of all of John Martin’s Paradise Lost mezzotints. Only 50 copies in this format were issued with text (at 24 guineas) and a few sets without text were made available at 18 guineas per set.
John Martin’s remarkable mezzotint engravings for Milton’s Paradise Lost are amongst the most magnificent visionary designs in the history of British printmaking. At the time that John Martin was commissioned to create this image, together with twenty-three companion plates, he was already one of the most famous painters in England and he was paid 2,000 guineas for his work. The engravings which John Martin produced were designed directly on the plates, without the aid of preparatory sketches. These are some of the earliest mezzotints to have been made using soft steel, rather than copper plates, and were the first illustrations to Paradise Lost in the mezzotint medium.
Their greatest significance, however, was in their spectacular visionary content. John Martin swept away the cluttered ideas of his predecessors whose Miltonic images had been dominated by large figures, each expressing an appropriate emotion, whilst showing little regard for the surrounding scenery. In contrast, John Martin laid before his public the spectacular settings of the epic tale. His fantastic vision conjured out of the blackness the vast recesses of the caverns of Hell, panoramic vistas of Paradise and the sublime beauty of Heaven itself. These images have no serious counterpart and are the very essence of the sublime in Romantic art.
When first released, these engravings were greeted with outstanding critical acclaim - the critic for The Literary Gazette proclaimed: “we know no artist, whose genius so perfectly fitted him being the illustrator of the mighty Milton; and in what we have seen of his conceptions he has more than realised the highest of our hopes. There is a wildness, a grandeur, and a mystery about his designs which are indescribably fine:- the painter is also a poet. … we look upon these engravings to belong to the foremost order of true genius: beyond this there is no praise.” (The Literary Gazette, April 2nd 1825).
John Martin’s success at confining his panoramic visions within the relatively small scale of an engraving plate appears to have stimulated his creative powers to their utmost, for his engraved designs for Paradise Lost were to provide the prototypes for many of his later major oil paintings. In this respect most of John Martin’s prints are genuinely original creations rather than reproductions.
Milton’s text allowed John Martin to develop his own unique vision of ideal landscape to depict Paradise – a challenge which he addressed with panoramic grandeur. Indeed, his visions of Paradise were to provide some of his most enduring images, including the largest and one of the most expensive John Martin watercolours ever sold Kilmeny (Agnew’s £160,000 in 1988) and The Plains of Heaven (Tate Britain). Martin’s scenes of Heaven, with their open panoramic views of vast park-like landscapes topped by gleaming mountains are in complete contrast with the enclosed blackness of his scenes of Hell. This particular image shows Eve startled by the first sight of her own reflection.
One of the most significant series of British illustrations ever to have been produced, John Martin’s mezzotint engravings for Paradise Lost stand as one of the great landmarks of visionary printmaking and remain unsurpassed as illustrations to Milton’s epic poem.
On warm white laid paper with very wide margins. Very fine condition, image surface excellent.