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.