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John Martin

1789 – 1854

Macbeth by John Martin

Macbeth   1828

  Mezzotint with etching by Thomas Lupton, after the oil painting by John Martin.
With the artists' names in the plate.
Ref: Campbell/Burnett II; Balston appendix 8b (Lupton 1); Tate John Martin Apocalypse pp.27-28; John Martin, 1789-1854, La Oscuridad Visible no.200, pp.444-445 & 609.
S 370 x 523 mm; P 325 x 406 mm; I 252 x 355 mm
Excellent impression of this rare independent print. This impressive soft steel mezzotint is the sole known record of the true design of John Martin’s lost oil painting of this subject – his major exhibition piece of 1820.

First and only issue, as published on August 1st 1828, with the full engraved lettering. This engraving represents the sole Shakespearean subject amongst John Martin’s printed works.

John Martin’s large oil painting of Macbeth had been his major exhibition piece of the year 1820 when it had been exhibited at the British Institution in London. Nearly thirty years later, in 1849, John Martin himself still referred to it as “one of my most successful landscapes” and although the original oil is now lost, Thomas Lupton’s mezzotint reveals the breadth of this dramatic composition admirably.

This was the largest mezzotint engraving made by Thomas Lupton after any of John Martin's works. Thomas Lupton had invented the soft steel plate and had assisted John Martin in his first large-scale mezzotint engraving using such a plate, namely Belshazzar’s Feast (C.W.74). Aside from plates engraved by John Martin's own sons, Macbeth is the only large-scale engraving which John Martin entrusted to any other engraver from the year 1827 onwards until long after he had ceased engraving himself. It is likely that Thomas Lupton regarded being given the opportunity to engrave one of the few of John Martin’s major exhibition pieces not yet to have been made into a print as something of a compliment considering John Martin’s elevated standing as both a painter and an engraver by 1828. However, it is quite likely that Martin saw this as an opportunity to advertise a painting which had not yet been sold, for the painting was still in Martin’s studio in the autumn of 1831 when it was regarded with special interest by Sir Walter Scott on one of his last visits to London.

John Martin’s image illustrates the opening scene of Shakespeare’s play in which Macbeth’s future as first Thane of Cawdor, and then King of Scotland, is foretold. Martin has chosen to depict the moment when the witches are just beginning to disappear, having delivered their fateful prophecy. The engraved lettering quotes from Shakespeare “Say from whence you owe this strange intelligence? or why upon this blasted heath you stop our way with such prophetic greeting? Speak, I charge you. (Witches vanish)”. The entry in the British Institution catalogue for 1820 carried the following quotation: “Macbeth, upon his return from the Highlands, after the defeat of Macdonald, meets the Weird Sisters on the blasted heath before sunset. Macbeth: Stay you imperfect speakers, tell me more. Banquo: Whither are they vanished?”

A large preparatory watercolour of Macbeth by John Martin, which was with Christie’s in London during the 1980’s conforms with Lupton’s engraving, sharing the sweeping circular formation of the disappearing witches. Three oil painted versions of Macbeth are known to exist, all much smaller than the original (Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon; Philadelphia; National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh). The best known of these is a reduced version of Martin's painting in the National Gallery of Scotland in which the witches disappear in a diagonal line towards the left of the canvas and a singularly unconvincing bolt of lightning strikes the ground at the point from which they vanish. Scotland's unsigned version of the work displays certain uncharacteristic qualities in the manner of its execution, which have led to doubts concerning its authenticity. John Martin’s original exhibition painting, a vast canvas measuring 68 x 96 inches (framed), is one of the most significant of his works still to remain missing; having been engraved directly from the original exhibition painting, this outstanding mezzotint is the only known record of its design.

A very good example of this rare print on soft white wove paper with full margins. Some minor repairs in margins, otherwise generally very good original condition.

Provenance: Collection of the Hon. Christopher Lennox-Boyd and with his collection stamp verso.