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John Martin

1789 – 1854

Belshazzar’s Feast (First steel plate) by John Martin

Belshazzar’s Feast (First steel plate)   1826

  Original mezzotint with etching.
With the artist’s name in the plate.
Ref: Campbell-Wees 74
S 646 x 878 mm; P 600 x 816 mm;  I 473 x 721 mm
Original John Martin mezzotint with etching.

The magnificent large plate mezzotint engraved by John Martin himself. Outstanding impression with strong blacks and impressive tonal range. An especially fine and totally intact example of the completed engraving, with full margins and in unusually good condition. Rare.

Belshazzar’s Feast (First steel plate) was the first large-scale soft steel mezzotint ever engraved by any artist and was also the first original large-scale mezzotint engraving to be completed by John Martin himself. 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 few truly creative, original works to be produced by any major artist of the period using the mezzotint process.

Belshazzar’s Feast is widely acknowledged as John Martin’s most important work and it was through his oil painting of this subject that his fame was first established and his success secured. When the painting was first exhibited in 1821 it had to be railed off from the crowds, so eager were they to see it. After its initial exhibition, the painting was transferred to a show of its own where over 5,000 people paid to see the one work - indeed, a visit to see Martin’s Belshazzar's Feast was considered as much a part of visiting London as a trip to Buckingham Palace.

In view of this exceptional popularity it is hardly surprising that Martin determined upon making his own engraving of the subject. At first, he commenced work upon a large copper plate of the subject; however, the advent of Thomas Lupton’s soft steel printing plate prompted Martin to abandon this early work and re-commence his engraving on one of the new soft steel plates. The mezzotint engraving, offered here, was Martin’s first large mezzotint and was the first engraving of its type to be executed on a soft steel plate of this size. This print was an immense commercial success and it led to a succession of similar large-scale engravings by Martin of many of his major paintings. Despite its success, fine impressions of this print in anything approaching good condition are now extremely rare.

The subject portrays the prophet Daniel interpreting the fiery writing on the wall which appeared at King Belshazzar’s feast, foretelling the downfall of his kingdom. At the time of its release, this design was considered to be exceptionally inventive, appearing to break all of the established conventions of history painting – indeed, this work bore the hallmark of extravagant spectacle on a scale which had never been seen before.

Belshazzar’s Feast represents the culmination of Martin’s architectural extravaganzas. Whilst this image seemed to belong to the world of the imagination, the artist went to considerable lengths to justify the reality of the proportions and details of the setting which he depicted. He consulted authoritative texts and scholars concerning records of this biblical event and took advice from eminent professors of mathematics on the diminution of scale and perspective of the architecture shown. In this respect Martin’s works were not only extraordinary spectacles and extravagant Romantic visions at a time long before cinema and television, but they purported to represent actual records of factual events.

This impression is a particularly fine example of the completed state of the engraving, as finished by John Martin. In this state the engraving shows the radiating lines which the artist added to frame the image throughout the margins of the plate. Martin owned his own printing workshop and was careful to oversee the printing of every impression. His son Leopold noted that “the glorious blaze of light” from the handwriting on the wall in this engraving of Belshazzar’s Feast was created chiefly by the careful mixing and wiping of the ink for each impression. At some stage before the end of 1832 Martin completely re-worked this plate, destroying the engraved work which we see here, to produce an entirely new engraving which he entitled Belshazzar’s Feast (Second plate). Consequently, no later printings of this engraving exist.

On warm white wove paper with margins. Some faint browning to sheet; one or two stains in outer margins, otherwise generally very good condition.