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Martin, John

b. 1789, Haydon Bridge, England; d. 1854, Isle of Man, U.K.

Bridge over Chaos (Paradise Lost) - C.W. 45, 1824-26 Mezzotint, 19.3 x 27 cm Collection: Michael J. Campbell

Satan Arousing the Falling Angels (Paradise Lost) C.W. 28, 1824 Mezzotint with touches of drypoint, 26.7 x 20.1 cm Collection: Michael J. Campbell

The Country of the Iguanodon, 1838 Mezzotint, 8.9 x 14.6 cm Collection: Michael J. Campbell 

The work of John Martin responds at many levels to the scientific, social and aesthetic changes rushed on by the Industrial Revolution. The subterranean marvels of the deep mines inspired his mezzotints for Milton’s epic Paradise Lost (1824-27). He also wrote numerous technical pamphlets urging improvements to safety in coal mines and to London’s sewage systems. He was proud to call himself “designer and inventor” rather than artist (Campbell 2011: 27). Martin was the most original and successful print-maker of his time. Mezzotint was then a new process, using soft-steel printing plates: unlike the linear character of etching and line engraving, it is “printed from ink held in the raised roughened surface” of the plate to produce an overall effect (ibid 25). Martin was unusual in that he “composed and designed his subjects on the plates themselves” (Myrone and Austen 2011: 127). The density and variety of the blacks and the occasional gleaming white highlights of prints such as Bridge over Chaos perfectly realise the vast, coal-dark underground of Milton’s Hell. By the beginning of the 19th century, geology had pushed back the beginnings of the world into “deep time” (Bindman 2011: 43). Despite the millenarian appearance of his apocalyptic paintings, Martin seems to have accepted the radical new theory that the earth was millions of years old. The palaeontologist Gideon Mantell commissioned Martin to produce The Country of Iguanodon for the frontispiece to his The Wonders of Geology (1838), convinced that only an artist of his imagination and skill could do justice to the birth of the world. DA