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John Martin

1789 – 1854

The Death of the First Born by John Martin

The Death of the First Born   1836

  Original mezzotint with etching.
Ref: Campbell-Wees 119; Balston 8a19; Tate Britain John Martin Apocalypse pp.30-31 & 140-141, item 71.
S 497 x 747 mm; I 480 x 731 mm
Original John Martin mezzotint with etching.

Particularly fine hand-coloured impression of this dramatic original mezzotint engraving by John Martin, in unusually good condition.

One of the most powerful of Martin's later engraved designs, The Death of the First Born depicts the arrival of Moses and Aaron in the royal palace of the Pharaohs of Egypt after the tenth and last plague had passed over the country. This plague had caused the first-born of each and every family, excepting the families of the Israelites, to die. The heir and hope of Egypt is laid out under white covers, awaiting embalming. His mother clings to his dead body, covering her face in her grief. Grouped around them are other members of the royal family. Pharaoh recoils from the approaching figure of the prophet, his gesture leaving little doubt as to whom he blames for the disaster. All around are groups mourning their dead or appealing to Moses for help. The cold splendour of the surrounding architecture appears in melancholy contrast to the sad scene.

John Martin's magnificent large scale mezzotints are the most impressive original works ever to be produced in the soft steel medium, and are amongst the most powerful and spectacular works of the period. They represent some of the very few truly creative, original works to be produced by any major artist of the period using the mezzotint process.

The Death of the First Born must be considered amongst the most important large scale engravings of this period of John Martin’s career, for this mezzotint is the first to show a significant shift away from the intricately detailed extravaganzas of Martin’s earlier work, towards a more cool, minimal, and distinctly modern style.

The Death of the First Born was published at a time when John Martin entered a period of severe financial and personal crisis which curtailed all of his printmaking activities. Martin’s commercial success as a printmaker had begun to suffer from the activities of copiers and plagiarists in the absence of effective copyright laws; consequently, Martin delayed the publication of this plate “in the hope that a new law for the protection of copyright was forming”. However, no such law was formed and publication went ahead though Martin himself pulled exceptionally few impressions from this plate, stating that they "had been but little circulated [the plate] having been withdrawn shortly after publication" to receive alterations which were never completed. The quality of this impression, which shows little or no evidence of wear to the plate, supports Martin’s statement that this engraving had been “little circulated”.

This impressive mezzotint was the culmination of over a year of preparatory studies and it is clear that John Martin saw this engraving as the final goal of his design, rather than an exhibition oil painting; indeed, no oil painting of this subject is recorded. Martin had already made a small monochrome watercolour of this design for his contribution to Westall & Martin’s Illustrations of the Bible by 1835 and he made various further outline sketches in preparation for this large engraving. These drawings provided the basis for an outline etching, which John Martin prepared on the plate. The real work then began in the creation of the outstanding mezzotint engraving itself. Comparison with the preparatory drawing now at the Yale Center for British Art shows the extent to which Martin himself saw his mezzotint as the final creative product of his grand ideas. No copy of the etching prior to the addition of mezzotint is now known, but on April 2nd 1836 The Athenæum reported, “An etching of Mr. Martin’s The Death of the First Born is also before us and gives good promise that when finished it will equal the best of his works”. The finished mezzotint, seen here, shows the reviewer’s hopes to have been fully realised.

Since these hand-coloured impressions are generally purchased for their decorative power, their price varies considerably depending upon the quality of the colour and the state of preservation of the image itself. Heavily toned impressions or those with image defects are notably less expensive due to the cost and difficulties involved in conserving hand-coloured prints of this nature. This is a particularly strong impression with good colour and without the sort of timetone which normally affects coloured impressions of this engraving.

A particularly finely coloured impression on warm cream wove paper with margins of approximately 1cm around image on all sides. Mild tone in margins; one short repair in lower margin, otherwise very good condition. Image surface excellent.