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John Martin

1789 – 1854

Illustrations of the Bible by John Martin

Illustrations of the Bible   1831-35

  Original mezzotints.
With the artist’s name engraved in the plates.
Ref: Campbell-Wees 92-111; Balston 9a11
Average dimensions: S 265 x 370 mm; P 267 x 358 mm; I 192 x 291 mm
Original John Martin mezzotints.

The complete set of 20 original mezzotints engraved by John Martin himself, as issued by Charles Tilt in 1839. A particularly fine example of this scarce publication.

Illustrations of the Bible was the most ambitious project of John Martin’s artistic career. John Martin had planned to produce a series of 40 illustrations of both Old and New Testaments, to be issued in parts, each of which was to contain two illustrations together with two accompanying leaves of text. The first part was issued in 1831. However, the high price of the prints and the lack of copyright laws, which allowed imitations of them to be sold for less, led to their being a commercial failure. The series was cut short after 20 mezzotint engravings covering only the Old Testament had been produced, the last part being issued in 1835.

In 1837/8 John Martin sold the plates to the publisher Charles Tilt, and in 1838 Tilt produced the first bound edition of the series, using his own new version of the text. The success of his issue was such that within one year Tilt printed the plates once again to produce the 1839 issue offered here.

When the first parts of John Martin’s series were released, they were greeted with glowing reviews and despite long intervals between the release of parts the acclaim did not die down for some years. However, by 1836 the publication had clearly failed commercially. During the period of this production John Martin had not been exhibiting large oil paintings in the way that he had during the 1820’s; instead, he had devoted his time to watercolours and to pursuing his plans for the improvement of London’s water supply. These were expensive projects at a time that John Martin’s financial commitments at home were increasing. John Martin’s worsening financial position was exacerbated by his mistake in attempting to issue his Bible series of engravings on his own, printing his own hopelessly inadequate letterpress. Things culminated in financial disaster by late 1837 and in order to stave off bankruptcy John Martin was forced to sell his treasured Illustrations of the Bible plates to the publisher Charles Tilt before the end of January 1838. It was only through Tilt’s 1838 and 1839 issues of these engravings that their fame was to become established.

This is a particularly fine printing of the 1839 issue, the mezzotints printing strong and black, with good contrast. Both mezzotints and text are in very good original condition with only minor isolated foxing. The spine of the volume has been well repaired and in all other respects the gilt red binding is in generally very good original condition.

The Illustrations of the Bible has always been far more scarce than John Martin’s other great series of original mezzotint illustrations – his engravings for Septimus Prowett’s issues of Milton’s Paradise Lost. The Bible series encapsulates the graphic œuvre of this brilliant artist more completely than any other series of his own original engraved works and is now considered of great importance in the history of British Romantic art.