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Francis Danby

1793 – 1861

The Opening of the Sixth Seal by Francis Danby

The Opening of the Sixth Seal   1830

  Mezzotint with etching, engraved by G.H. Phillips after Francis Danby.
With the artists’ names in the plate.
Ref: F. Greenacre, Francis Danby, Tate Gallery, London, 1988, item no.134, also pp.26-29, 98-100, and 159.
S 661 x 802 mm; P 607 x 780 mm; I 491 x 689 mm
Superb proof impression from the large first plate of this spectacular subject. Excellent impression with full tonal range and good contrast. First issue proof, as published by M.H. Colnaghi on 1st January 1830. A very early impression with the engraved word PROOF to the left of the title space. Proofs such as this are rare and are far superior in quality to the normal published 'print' impressions which became so weak that the final printings by Thomas Ross & Son required hand colouring due to their lack of contrast.

The Opening of the Sixth Seal, along with The Passage of the Red Sea, is one of the two most spectacular large scale mezzotints of Francis Danby's work. Danby’s enormous oil painting of this subject, entitled An Attempt to Illustrate the Opening of the Sixth Seal was heralded as the most popular painting at the Royal Academy’s exhibition of 1828, having to be moved to a distant gallery because of the crowds which it attracted. It was bought by the fabulously wealthy collector William Beckford for 500 guineas and Danby received a further 200 guinea prize from the British Institution, together with 300 guineas from Colnaghi who had already agreed to purchase the copyright of the image for engraving in December 1827.

The financial success associated with the subject of the Sixth Seal marks the pinnacle of Francis Danby’s critical and financial success as an artist. By late 1829 Danby was forced too flee from England as a result of debt and the scandalous breakdown of his marriage and although he produced numerous splendid paintings after this date, none was received with the exceptional acclaim of this great work. He was never able to fully re-establish his reputation and no subsequent large scale engravings after any of his works were made.

This image illustrates the passage in the Revelations of St. John the Divine in which “The people (are) calling on the mountains, to fall on them, and hide them from the wrath of God”. Chapter 6, verse 12 onwards describes the scene: “And I beheld when he had opened the sixth seal, and lo, there was a great earth quake and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became as blood; And the stars of heaven fell unto the earth…” The distinctive clouds illustrate the heavens vanishing “as a scroll when it is rolled together”. The broadsheet which accompanied the painting drew reference to the central “figure of a slave, (erect and fearless, admid the warring elements), shaking his manacles from his hands and tossing his liberated arms to heaven” as “a poetical representation of the freedom of the oppressed”. This reference relates directly to the topical subject of the abolition of the slave trade.

Many years later, after Francis Danby’s painting had been sold to John Watkins Brett, it was attacked while on exhibition at Rochdale in 1843: “some miscreant… cut a piece, about 12 inches by 8, out of the centre of it… The slave with uplifted hands, with the prostrate King and warrior in armour, is the part cut out and taken away”. Danby restored the painting, working on much more than just the damaged area and arranged for the mezzotint engraving to be re-worked “to bring up the plate to this amended condition of the picture”. In fact, the second version of the mezzotint was a completely new plate and not simply a reworked version of this first engraving, from which it differs completely. When Colnaghi published this first version of this plate in 1830, the painting was still owned by William Beckford and the engraved lettering in the title space carries a dedication to this effect. By 1843 the painting had been sold to John Watkins Brett, to whom the second version of the mezzotint was dedicated.

The Opening of the Sixth Seal remains one of the most impressive large-scale mezzotints of its type and is one of the great apocalyptic images of British Romantic art.

On warm white wove paper with margins beyond the platemark on all sides, outer margin uneven at upper edge of sheet. Generally good original condition (a full condition report is available upon request).

Provenance: the Hon. Christopher Lennox-Boyd and with his collector’s stamp verso.