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Versions of the Sublime: Illustrating Paradise Lost

Versions of the Sublime: Illustrating Paradise Lost

Versions of the Sublime: Illustrating Paradise Lost

Brian Opie

Published in The Turnbull Library Record, 29 (1996), 25-46, and republished with permission.

Illustrations of Milton’s poetry exemplify the changing contexts in which his poetry has been read and the scope of his enquiry into the origins and direction of western culture with a vividness and immediacy unavailable to written interpretation. Two illustrators of Paradise Lost, Richard Westall and John Martin, provide startling evidence in the extraordinary differences between their visual readings of the poem of its complex articulation of cultural imperatives. My purpose in this paper is to show how the artists are closely engaging with the poem, so that their illustrations are consistent both to their distinctive, overall conceptions of the poem and to its central thematic concerns and rhetorical power. At the turn into the industrial era, Paradise Lost is read by both artists as a sublime poem, but by drawing upon significantly different dimensions of its poetic imagery.

Richard Westall RA (1765-1836) is described by Richard Altick as one of ‘the half-dozen prominent artists who both worked as book illustrators and sent paintings, some commissioned by publishers as designs for engravings, to the yearly exhibitions ... in the last decade of the eighteenth century and the first three of the nineteenth’.1 Altick quotes Hazlitt’s account of the principal features of Westall’s style as representative of this group of artist-illustrators: ‘beauty of form ... the refined essence and volatilized spirit of art ... and where, instead of [nature’s] endless variety, peculiarities, and defects, we constantly meet with the same classical purity and undeviating simplicity of idea’.2 Marcia Pointon observes that ‘Westall was famed for his emotive illustration and Payne Knight, we are told, “found in his oil painting the embodiment of his personal conception of ‘beauty’”’.3 His designs illustrated poetry, plays and novels by writers such as Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, Bunyan, Thomson, Goldsmith, Gray, Rogers, Parnell, Scott, Southey and Byron, and David Hume’s nine volume History of England. The illustrations of Paradise Lost of particular interest here are those in the Boydells’ edition of The Poetical Works, published in 3 volumes from 1794-97.4

John Martin (1784-1854) painted subjects from writers including Shakespeare, Goldsmith, Gray, and Byron, but his principal source was the Bible.5 Detailed accounts of Martin’s work as artist and book illustrator are given by Edward Hodnett, Image and Text. Studies in the illustration of English Literature (Aldershot: Scolar Press, 1982) and Christopher Johnstone, John Martin (London: Academy Editions, 1974). The widely differing responses to his style can be summarized in two comments, one by Macaulay and the other by Bulwer. Macaulay, in the Edinburgh Review (1831), wrote that Martin ‘should have never attempted to illustrate Paradise Lost. There can be no two manners more directly opposed to each other than the manner of his painting and the manner of Milton’s poetry. ... Mr Martin has succeeded perfectly in representing the pillars and candelabra of Pandemonium. But he has forgotten that Milton’s Pandemonium is merely the background to Satan’.6 By contrast, Bulwer describes Martin in 1833 as ‘the greatest, the most lofty, the most permanent, the most original genius of his age. ... Look at his Deluge - ... I consider this the most magnificent alliance of philosophy and art of which the history of painting can boast’.7 His illustrations for Paradise Lost which will be considered here are those commissioned by Septimus Prowett in 1823 and published from 1825-27.

Altick concludes that painters like Westall ‘determined the way English literature was to be presented in visual form to the readers of illustrated editions and, to a large extent, in the paintings offered at the exhibitions down to the Victorian era. Additionally, the wide circulation of their engravings ... opened the eyes of a new generation of artists to the seemingly limitless artistic potentiality of literature’. By contrast, as one of this new generation, Martin did not ‘influence the course that the painting of literary subjects was to take during the rest of the century, [being] too specialized to appeal to the domestic tastes of the new, expanding art public’.8

The years between 1790-1850, during which both artists were active, constituted a period of great political, cultural and social change. In particular, it is the period most formative for the variants of British culture which laid the basis for New Zealand’s Pākehā culture and determined the kinds of response to New Zealand available to British settlers in the early settlement period. My concluding section will briefly consider one example of such cultural transmission, but my initial purpose is to enquire into the connection between cultural change, representation, and technology.

Both artists were influenced by the theory of the sublime, and contributed in their very different ways towards shaping their contemporaries’ conceptions of romantic sublimity. The critical difference in their situations, compared to previous artists, is the hugely increased circulation of their designs. As Altick has shown in very great detail, the market for pictorial representations widened on many fronts: public exhibitions of paintings; prints which could be purchased at the exhibition and subsequently published in catalogues, as book illustrations, or for separate sale; the widening of the reading public with cheaper editions of English writers, and an increasing expectation these books would be illustrated; the increasing use of illustration in scientific, technical and other kinds of non-fiction publications;9 and the development of new forms of public entertainment like the diorama and the panorama, in which pictorial representation achieved new kinds of spectacular effect by placing audiences in new relations to the image in specially designed buildings using illusionistic techniques developed in the theatre.10

Technologies of representation, and particularly printing, with its capability of addressing a mass audience cheaply, played a critical role in facilitating these developments and shaping the direction taken by them. It is frequently noted in discussions of Martin’s pictures that his work aspires to the condition of panoramic or, to instance a later technology, cinematic representation.11 Such an aspiration may be profitably attributed to a powerful feature of western traditions of thinking about perception and representation, the modelling of artistic theory and practice on a visual epistemology, that is, on the convention that ideas are imagistic in form, that sight is the prime knowledge-making sense, and that representation, whether of the ideal or real worlds, is fundamentally pictorial whatever specific modes of representation may be employed. Associated with this tradition is the search for the technological means to communicate the ideas of the mind and the imagery of sight with the same exactitude as they are imagined. In particular, Milton’s description of ‘this intellectual being,/Those thoughts that wander through eternity’ (Paradise Lost, 2.147-8) and Thomas Richardson’s figurative term for the theatre, ‘a moving picture’12, capture key dimensions of this deeply entrenched cultural project.13 While the late twentieth century cannot be regarded as demonstrating the completion of this project, the capabilities of computer graphics and multimedia technologies to integrate the ideal and the virtual real into a seamless moving image could only be dreamed about by artists like John Martin.14

This period was also the high point of Milton’s reception as both the great English poet and political radical. 21 editions of Paradise Lost were issued between 1788 and 1801, the period of the French Revolution. Out of the over 160 illustrators of Milton’s poetry listed in the Milton Encyclopaedia, about 60 produced illustrations or paintings between 1790 and 1830. Ronald Paulson describes Milton’s significance at the end of the eighteenth century through a contrast with Shakespeare:

If Shakespeare stood for incident, invention, copiousness, and the infinite variety of human nature, Milton stood for the terrific conflict of opposing forces - good and evil, past and present, fall and redemption - embodied in a man and a woman or a tempter and a tempted.... The two kinds of landscape described in Paradise Lost, Eve’s immersion in her own image in the pool and Adam’s looking up and around him to catalogue flora and fauna, corresponded to the ways a landscape painter attempted to order the wilderness that experience spread before him.... From the graphic point of view, the primary paradigm of Paradise Lost was the contrast (which for Milton is always choice) of light and dark, height and depth or rise and fall.... in the paintings of J.M.W. Turner and John Martin, the relationship of figure to landscape was as close as in the central books of Paradise Lost.15

In this account, Paulson emphasises what Westall and Milton emphasise, the Renaissance and Enlightenment conception of heroism as ‘imbodied force’ (Paradise Lost, 1.574), the human figure locating the moral and passional energies which identify the human as the exemplar of the created world and which are reflected sympathetically in nature. What this account overlooks is that other representation of power in Paradise Lost, in which the energies of the inorganic are released by technology, a condition of the fallen world in the poem which becomes ambiguously a principal sign of the achievements in industrial civilization in the first half of the nineteenth century.16

1 Richard D Altick, Paintings from Books. Art and Literature in Britain, 1760-1900 Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1985), p.39.

2 Paintings from Books, pp.39-40.

3 Marcia R Pointon, Milton and English Art. A study in the pictorial artist’s use of a literary source (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1970), p.121.

4 The edition of Paradise Lost quoted in this paper is John Milton, Paradise Lost, edited by Christopher Ricks (London,1968).

5 Detailed accounts of Martin's work as artist and book illustrator are given by Christopher Johnstone, John Martin (London, 1974); William Feaver, John Martin (Oxford, 1975); Edward Hodnett, Image and Text. Studies in the Illustration of English Literature (Aldershot, l982); and Michael J. Campbell, John Martin. Visionary Printmaker (n.p.,1992).

6 Cited in Altick, Paintings from Books, p. 359.

7 Edward Lytton Bulwer, England and the English, edited by Standish Meacham (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1970), pp. 343-344.

8 Altick, Paintings from Books, pp. 41, 61.

9 Hanns Hammelmann, Book Illustrators in Eighteenth-Century England, ed. T.S.R.Boase (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1975), p. 11, distinguishes between ‘the work of the genuine illustrators, men who were interpreting imaginative work’, and those engaged in ‘the recording of things seen. Chief amongst these categories are technical, particularly anatomical, works; architecture; archaeology, with its reproductions of ancient buildings and works of art; travel and topography, with a steadily increasing list of Tours illustrated by landscape views’. Recent work on the cultural and perceptual significance of these categories of illustration would not observe such a qualitative distinction between kinds of image. See, for example, Barbara Maria Stafford, Body Criticism. Imagining the Unseen in Enlightenment Art and Medicine (Cambridge, Mass.: 1991) and Landscape and Power, edited by W.J.T. Mitchell (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1994).

10 Richard D. Altick, The Shows of London (Cambridge, Mass., 1978), pp. 128-220; William H. Galperin, The Return of the Visible in British Romanticism (Ballimore and London, 1993), pp. 34- 71. For New Zealand examples, see the papers in Turnbull Library Record, 27 (1994).

11 For example, Hodnett, 'John Martin's "ParadiseLost"’, in Image and Text.

12 Altick, Paintings from Books, p. 212.

13 Anthony Smith, 'New Technologies and New Illusions', in Software for the Self. Culture and Technology (London and Boston, 1996).

14 For a modern reconstruction of this period if computing technology had become available, and how a poet like John Keats might have created his compositions, see William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, The Difference Engine (London: 1990).

15 Ronald Paulson, Book and Painting. Shakespeare, Milton, and the Bible: Literary Texts and the Emergence of English Painting (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1982), pp.100-102.

16 Rosalind Williams, Notes on the Underground. An Essay on Technology, Society, and the Imagination (Cambridge, Mass., and London, 1990), pp. 87-88, writes that 'The emotion of sublimity is, above all, related to perceptions of immense scale.... The concept of sublimity is thus part of the cultural context of the discovery of geological deep time. It is also part of the discovery of industrial technology. The iconography of sublimity (here the key image is the exploding volcano) provides the link between the natural landscape and the technological one'. For this period, another perspective particularly relevant to the third section of this paper is given by Barbara Novak, Nature and Culture. American Landscape and Painting, 1825-1875 (New York and Toronto, 1980). She argues that 'the sublime [associatedwith fear,gloom, andmajesty] was being absorbed into a religious, moral, and frequently nationalist concept of nature, contributing to the rhetorical screen under which the aggressive conquest of the country could be accomplished. The older sublime was a gentleman's preserve, an aristocratic reflex of romantic thought. The Christianized sublime, more accessible to everyone, was more democratic, even bourgeois. Its social effect was thus much wider' (p. 38).