John Martin, The Fall of Babylon

Date: 1830
Technique: Mezzotint with etching, 46.7 x 72 cm

John Martin (1789-1854) first interpreted the biblical scene of the destruction of Babylon in a huge painting exhibited at the British Institution in 1819.

He was keen to make prints after his paintings, as a 'means which would enable the public to see my productions, and give me a chance of being remunerated for my labours'. Martin did not see his prints just as commercial reproductions, but as works of art in their own right. He took personal responsibility for every stage of print production. He even inked his own plates, a job which was normally left to specialist printers.

The mezzotint was the ideal medium for creating painterly effects. A metal plate (usually copper but in this case steel) is evenly roughened with a serrated 'rocker' that would print as a dark area if inked up. A design is formed by burnishing down the plate to create smooth areas that print as light tones. This process creates dramatic chiaroscuro (light and shade), which well suited the drama of Martin's apocalyptic subject matter.

The eccentric, English dilettante, William Beckford wrote:

'I have been three times running to the exhibition ... to admire 'The Capture of Babylon' by Martin. He adds the greatest distinction to contemporary art. Oh, what a sublime thing.'

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