John Martin's illustrations for Paradise Lost, 1827

Description

When Romantic artist John Martin (1789–1854) turned to illustrate John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667), he produced a set of prints that responded ambitiously to the epic nature of the poem.

The mezzotint engravings were commissioned in 1824 by the publisher Septimus Prowett, and sold to subscribers in stages between 1825 and 1827. Twenty-four of them were then printed, alongside the poem, in this large two-volume edition of 1827. The prints were a critical and commercial success, and sold around the world.

‘Darkness visible’

Mezzotint engraving commonly follows a method known as ‘dark to light’. A metal plate is roughened all over to hold ink, and then selected areas are smoothed to create swathes of light within the shade and darkness. The process seems especially apt for the story of God’s Creation and mankind’s Fall in Paradise Lost. Just as Milton shifts between the ‘utter darkness’ of chaos and God’s ‘happy Realms of Light’ (Book 1, ll. 72; 85), so the artist moves from darkness to light in creating the engraving. Martin’s image for ‘The Creation of Light’ (Book 7, ll. 339) reveals these subtle contrasts.

The sublime

Like other artists and critics, Martin saw Paradise Lost as an embodiment of the sublime – an idea that was central to the Romantic period of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The burning lake and deep caves of Hell, the dark voids of chaos and the towering trees of Eden have an awe-inspiring power, while the figures are often made to seem small and helpless before these vast landscapes. Some critics admired the wild, dramatic grandeur of Martin’s scenes, but others felt he diminished the vital role played by the central characters of the poem.

Industry and architecture

Some of Martin’s images seem heavily influenced by 19th-century industrial Britain. ‘The Bridge over Chaos’ (Book 10, ll. 312 and 347) is almost like a sewer tunnel or mine-shaft, while ‘Pandemonium’ (Book 1, l. 710) and the ‘Courts of God’ (Book 3, l. 365) have a strong architectural element. This perhaps reflects the fact that Martin was, at this time, designing schemes for improving towns with embankments and sewers, underground railways and glass shopping complexes.

Full title:
The Paradise Lost of Milton, with illustrations designed and engraved by John Martin.
Published:
1827, London
Format:
Book / Quarto / Illustration / Image
Creator:
John Martin [artist], John Milton
Usage terms
Public Domain
Held by
British Library
Shelfmark:
643.m.18 and 643.m.19.

Full catalogue details

Related articles

Eve in Milton’s Paradise Lost: Poignancy and paradox

Article by:
Sandra M. Gilbert
Themes:
Gender and sexuality, Politics and religion

Eve in Paradise Lost is vain vulnerable and evidently intellectually inferior to Adam. However, Sandra M Gilbert argues that, though Milton portrays her as a weak character, he also puts her on a par with Satan in her refusal to accept hierarchy and because of her ability to move the plot of Paradise Lost forward.

Philip Pullman's introduction to Paradise Lost

Article by:
Philip Pullman
Themes:
Gender and sexuality, Politics and religion

Philip Pullman first read Paradise Lost as a schoolboy and was dazzled by the sound of its poetry as he and his classmates read it aloud. Since then, he has become fascinated by Milton's tremendous powers of storytelling, and the ways in which he creates narrative tension, complex moods and vivid characters.

‘Reason is but choosing’: freedom of thought and John Milton

Article by:
Roberta Klimt
Theme:
Politics and religion

From his politics and religious writings to Paradise Lost, Roberta Klimt traces how the life and work of John Milton was guided by the principle of freedom of thought and how in doing so he challenged fundamental aspects of 17th-century society.

Related collection items

Related people

Related teachers' notes

Milton's paradise lost - teachers notes thumbnails

Milton: Crime & Punishment in Paradise Lost

Through exploring characterisation and setting in Paradise Lost, students will reflect on how transgressive actions and their consequences are presented, with particular reference to Books I, II, IX and X.

PDF Download Available

Related works

Paradise Lost

Created by: John Milton

Paradise Lost overview Paradise Lost is an epic poem (12 books, totalling more than 10,500 lines) written in blank ...