Student Mark Pickett (MA History of the Book) wonders at the splendour created in historical literary texts by the then emerging technologies.
The Latin root noun textus (meaning ‘texture, tissue, structure’) indicates the sheer craftsmanship that goes into making texts from a wide array of materials into limitless possible mediums. Images as well as words could also be considered as texts, and in an illustrated book the text technologies behind their impressions on the page shape what meanings one can draw from reading and viewing experiences.
The illustrations by romantic artist John Martin (1789–1854) for the Christian epic Paradise Lost by John Milton (1608–1675) are shaped as much by the technologies they employ as the words they illustrate. And the new texts they create reveal important insights into the physical and intellectual processes behind imagining Milton through time.
The print technique Martin used to illustrate Paradise Lost in his 1827 edition was mezzotint, named from the Italian ‘mezzotinto (half tint)’. This intaglio method differs from relief, in that ink is held in depressions and not raised surfaces. Mezzotint is known for its tonal range, allowing any shade between the darkest blacks and the most brilliant whites.
To make a mezzotint, Martin used a rocker to rock a steel plate, cutting lines in a few dozen directions across the entire surface of the plate. This creates a tightly packed mesh of tiny holes, increasing the plate’s surface area and allowing it to hold a rich supply of ink.
Using a scraper for harsh effects and a burnisher for gentler ones, Martin would then smooth and flatten the burr (small peaks of displaced metal between the holes) in gradients that reduced by degrees the amount of ink that holes could contain (How to Identify Prints, Section 16).
Starting from a black canvas, white is slowly introduced to give the mezzotint its contours and shades. This excellent YouTube demonstration helps to visualise the technique.
The whitest light emanating from heaven illuminates Martin’s Satan viewing the ascent to Heaven (pictured) with its piercingly linear rays, providing the grey outlines which fold the black, rolling precipices that are the proper place of Satan. His own brilliance matches the angels ascending the stairway to heaven to remind him of the great origins from which he has fallen, and the light-bathed architectural grandeur of the palace of Heaven reminds one of God’s power to create and his wisdom in obscuring creation from prying eyes.
The possibilities inherent in the mezzotint-making process allow a new treatment of this Miltonic scene emphasising Romantic conceptions of the sublime, defined by the politician and philosopher Edmund Burke (1729-1797) as the deep excitement of emotion one feels when observing great and terrible scenes (pp. 33–34). What makes this scene of Paradise Lost terrible to behold is the sheer magnitude of Milton’s staircase, which demands a portrait view from its artist to trace its ascent ‘by degrees magnificent’ / Up to the wall of Heaven a structure high’ (Book 3, lines 502–3). The void pit of pitch-black chaos from which Satan emerges serves to startle him as well as the reader as now they gaze upwards at heaven’s whitest of lights and highest of heights.
The sublime is perhaps the most important emotion this scene could elicit from Romantic readers, and the extra visual information to stimulate it that Martin’s mezzotint provides alongside Milton’s words creates a new text for the reader to interpret. It also teaches us how changing artistic milieus responded to the great works of the past.
What makes Martin’s selection of the stairway to Heaven scene so daring to illustrate is the challenge to art that Milton makes within it. Arguing that the heavenly light shining upon the stairs is ‘inimitable on earth / By model, or by shading pencil, drawn’ (Book 3, lines 508–9), Milton emphasises that even the shading effects of pencils – which mezzotint specialises in achieving – are unable to capture all of heaven’s varying degrees of light.
Both these artists struggle alike to convey spiritual realms within the limiting confines of a fallen world. Whereas Milton attempts to describe heaven using the medium of words and aided by his invocation to the holy spirit (Book 1, lines 17–26), Martin’s artistic impulses rather strive to critically and convincingly visualise Milton’s scenes. Martin’s mezzotint illustrations of Paradise Lost, therefore, exploit the possibilities of text technologies in mediums other than language to create new meanings and allow the reader to reconceive this literary work as it begins to be placed in new print, art, and cultural contexts.
All 24 of Martin’s mezzotint illustrations of Paradise Lost can be found here.
Mark Pickett is currently studying the MA History of the Book at the Institute of English Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London. He is particularly interested in the book trade, the writings of Sir Thomas Browne, and the relationship between Book History and Literature.