London, Septimus Prowett, 1827.
Imperial octavo, two volumes, [vi], 228 and [iv], 218 pages plus 24 full-page mezzotints.
Contemporary full red morocco, extensively decorated in gilt and blind, all edges gilt; leather slightly scuffed, marked, and a little rubbed and bumped at the extremities; spines a little sunned; plates foxed, with moderate offsetting to the facing pages; scattered foxing elsewhere; a very good set with a light pencilled gift inscription dated 1848.
'Martin's illustrations to John Milton's epic poem "Paradise Lost" represent a turning point in his career. The vast majority of Martin's most famous works were based upon either Miltonic or Biblical subject matter. The "Paradise Lost" series are of particular importance both as one of his chief bodies of designs and as the focal point for the beginning of his career as a mezzotint engraver. Begun by early 1824, this series of engravings was the result of a commission from a little known American publisher, named Septimus Prowett. Prowett, who was based in London, approached Martin to produce 24 mezzotint illustrations to accompany an issue of Milton's text which was to be produced in twelve parts. To appreciate the impact which Martin's designs had upon his public, one must realize the extent to which these extraordinary visions represented an entirely new conception of approach to the art of illustration. Not only were they original in the truest sense of the word, designed directly on the plates without the aid of preparatory sketches, they were some of the earliest mezzotints to have been made using soft steel rather than copper, and they were the first illustrations of Milton's epic work to have been made in the mezzotint medium. The greatest significance of Martin's illustrations, however, was in their spectacular visionary content. Martin laid before his public the spectacular settings of the epic tale: the open voids of the Creation, the vast vaulted caverns of Hell vanishing into the utter blackness of Chaos, the daunting scale of the city of Pandemonium, and the sweeping beauty of Heaven itself. These images have no serious counterpart and are the very essence of the sublime in Romantic art. They are without doubt one of the most significant series of British book illustrations ever to have been produced' (Michael J. Campbell et al: 'John Martin, Visionary Printmaker', Campbell Fine Art and York City Art Gallery, 1992). Martin himself produced two different series of the 24 plates: the smaller ones, as here, are nominally 6" × 8" (150 × 200 mm); the larger series measure 8" × 11" (200 × 275 mm).