Lot 57
  • 57

John Martin

2,000,000 - 3,000,000 GBP
Log in to view results
bidding is closed


  • John Martin
  • The Celestial City and the River of Bliss
  • signed and dated lower right: J. Martin 1841
  • oil on canvas 


Purchased from the artist in 1841 by Benjamin Hick of Bolton;

His sale, Manchester, February 1843, where acquired by John Clowes Grundy (1806–1867), together with Pandemonium, for 180 guineas, on behalf of George Whiteley;

George Whiteley (1825–1873), of Blackburn and Halifax;

By descent to his second son, Sir Herbert Huntington-Whiteley, 1st Bt.;

By descent to his son Captain Sir Maurice Huntington-Whiteley, 2nd Bt., R.N.;

By descent to his son, Sir Hugo Baldwin Huntington-Whiteley, 3rd Bt., Ripple Hall, Tewkesbury, until 1994;

With Peter Nahum, Leicester Galleries, London;

Forbes Magazine Collection, London;

Private Collection, USA (on loan to the J.B. Speed Museum, Louisville, Kentucky).


London, Royal Academy, 1841, no. 428;

Birmingham, City Museum and Art Gallery, 1952 (on loan);

London, Victoria and Albert Museum, Berlioz and the Romantic Imagination, 1969, no. 219, reproduced in catalogue;

London, Hazlitt, Gooden & Fox, John Martin, Loan Exhibition, 1975, no. 17;

London, Tate Britain, Apocalypse, September 2011 – January 2012, cat. no. 96.


M. L. Pendered, John Martin, Painter, London 1923, pp. 145, 158 and 280;

T. Balston, John Martin 1789–1854, His Life and Works, London 1947, pp. 206 and 275;

R. James, 'Two Paintings by John Martin', in The Burlington Magazine, vol. XCIV, no. 593, August 1952, pp. 234–37, reproduced plate 23;

W. Feaver, John Martin, London 1975, pp. 165–167, 169, 173, 198, 231–32, nos 38 and 47, reproduced plate 125;

Hazlitt, Gooden & Fox, John Martin 1789–1854, exhibition catalogue, London 1975, pp. 31–32, cat. no. 17, reproduced plate 17;

M. Myrone (ed.), Apocalypse, London 2011, pp. 168–69, cat. no. 96.


The following condition report is provided by Sarah Walden who is an external specialist and not an employee of Sotheby's: John Martin. The Celestial City and the River of Bliss. Signed and dated 1841. It was not possible to see the back of the canvas behind a backboard. Such a painting must initially have had a strong supporting canvas. The central vertical appears to be a seam, which has been retouched in the sky. There seems to be occasional unevenness of the surface suggesting an old lining, which could conceivably still be the original backing since the texture of the brushwork and the impasto is remarkably intact. Loose tension at lower right probably just indicates lost wedges. As well as the central vertical there are other faint parallel verticals on either side, without any retouching. A fairly brief narrow line, perhaps an old scrape (about two inches long) has been retouched and can be seen under ultra violet light in the upper right sky, just above the celestial city. Occasional other minor imperfections in the surface are visible in a raking light in the upper right sky, and there is an almost rectangular area at lower centre right which has fairly marked irregular surface craquelure. There has been a fairly recent restoration, perhaps before the various Exhibitions in the later decades of the last century, with some light, if quite broad, surface retouching in the lower right and left corners of the landscape, as well as light surface washes in the upper central landscape, but these are superficial strengthening washes rather than repairs of damage. The area at lower centre right with accentuated craquelure may in fact have lost some flakes perhaps. However the extraordinary preservation of this vast visionary painting is remarkable, including the dramatic impasted foreground, the minute detail of multitudes in the distances and of the angels carrying one saved soul upwards to the celestial city, all are miraculously intact. This report was not done under laboratory conditions.
"This lot is offered for sale subject to Sotheby's Conditions of Business, which are available on request and printed in Sotheby's sale catalogues. The independent reports contained in this document are provided for prospective bidders' information only and without warranty by Sotheby's or the Seller."

Catalogue Note

Exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1841 alongside its pendant Pandemonium (Musée du Louvre, Paris), this magnificent painting is a masterpiece by one of the most visionary and original artists of the nineteenth-century. Illustrating scenes from Milton’s Paradise Lost, together they represent one of the major pictorial achievements of Martin’s return to oil painting in the 1840s, and between them they succinctly encapsulate the full range of his artistic powers. The two pictures are designed as opposing pendants to each other. Pandemonium, which directly illustrates lines 710–15 from Book 1 of Milton’s epic poem,1 presents a monstrous view of the hellish city of the damned, ‘the high Capitol, of Satan and all his peers’, rising from the boiling inferno under the direction of Mammon. By contrast, The Celestial City and Rivers of Bliss, offers an ethereal vision of the heavenly kingdom, with the city itself floating in a luminous vapour on the distant horizon, its limitless palaces sparkling, jewel-like, in the dazzling sun, and the luxuriant wilderness landscape of Paradise stretching before it. Whilst the former picture is a direct reference to specific lines in Milton’s celebrated magnum opus, the latter is a more amphibolic allusion to a number of passages in the poem. It was exhibited at the Royal Academy accompanied by a quotation from Book 3, lines 274–75: ‘Eternal King; thee Author of all being, / Fountain of Light, thy self invisible’, which refers to the luminosity of heaven. However, an earlier treatment of the subject by Martin, entitled Heaven – The Rivers of Bliss,2 had been published with a reference to Book 11, lines 77-80, in which angels summoned by God, hasten to his ‘throne supreme’: ‘Filld all the Regions: from thir blissful Bowrs /Of Amarantin Shade, Fountain of Spring,/ By the waters of Life, where ere they sate / In fellowships of joy: the Sons of Light’, and the composition of the present work can clearly be seen to draw inspiration from these lines.3

Milton’s sublime visions of heaven and hell were a source of inspiration that Martin would return to time and again during the course of his career. In 1813 he had shown the Miltonic Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise (Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne) at the British Institution, and in 1823 he had exhibited Adam and Eve entertaining the Angel Raphael (Kirkcaldy Museum & Art Gallery, Fife), which directly illustrated a scene from Book 5 of Paradise Lost. Shortly afterwards he had been commissioned by the print maker, Septimus Prowett, to produce a set of twenty-four mezzotint illustrations to Milton’s epic poem, for which he was paid the enormous sum of 2,000 guineas. The series was published by subscription between 1825 and 1827, and contained designs for both Pandemonium and Heaven – The Rivers of Bliss, upon which Martin’s later, much grander paintings are based. The immediate precedent for this series of engravings was Turner’s Liber Studiorum, itself inspired by the prints after Claude Lorrain's drawings collected in the Liber Veritatis, which had been published in 1777. Martin’s engravings, however, represented a dramatic reversal of the standard working methods of both painters and print makers, with the artist working directly onto the plates themselves, working out the composition in mezzotint before committing it to paint. Whilst the design of the 1841 painting of Pandemonium remained quite close to the original mezzotint, The Celestial City and the River of Bliss, by contrast, departs more considerably from its prototype, with the artist focusing less upon narrative detail, and more upon the vast limitless space and luminous visual effect of Paradise.

The grand themes of the twelve books of Milton’s great poem dealt both with the fall of man, and his expulsion from Eden, and the rebel angels, and their eviction from Paradise. The richly allusive text, and its heroic narrative, was much admired in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century for its sublime and hugely imaginative imagery, as well as for being exemplary in its poetic ambition and intellectual seriousness. William Hogarth (1697–1764), James Barry (1741–1806), Richard Westall (1765–1836), and more importantly William Blake (1757–1827) and Henry Fuseli (1741–1825) had all painted scenes from Paradise Lost. In the 1790s Fuseli had gone so far as to create a one-man gallery of some forty Miltonic pictures, and the challenge of illustrating this most sublime of English writers was taken up by numerous painters and illustrators during Martin’s lifetime. Few, however, captured the public imagination as successfully as Martin, whose awe-inspiring imagery achieved immediate acclaim. ‘We know of no artist whose genius so perfectly fitted him to be the illustrator of the mighty Milton’ enthused the Literary Gazette in 1825, ‘there is a wildness, a grandeur, and a mystery about his designs which are indescribably fine’. What impressed contemporaries was that, unlike earlier generations of artists who had tended to dwell on the figure of Satan and his adventures, Martin’s treatment of the subject ‘concentrated almost exclusively on the epic-pastoral landscapes of Eden and on the vast industrial complexes of the nether regions’.4

As Martin Myrone commented in his catalogue to the 2011–12 Tate exhibition, Apocalypse, ‘the art of John Martin penetrated the culture of the nineteenth-century English-speaking world more deeply and more profoundly than that of any other modern artist’.5 Exhibited up and down the country, his paintings were seen by many thousands of people and prints from his mezzotint engravings were widely distributed, not only throughout the British Isles, but in America and across the Empire. In the years following his death his final masterpiece, the Last Judgement triptych, toured every major urban centre in Britain, as well as being exhibited in New York and later in Melbourne and Sydney. By 1861 they were estimated to have been seen by over eight million people, whilst prints from his illustrations to Paradise Lost were turning up in the stock of auctioneers in Australia as early as the 1830s. If the geographical reach of Martin’s imagery was impressive, the depth of its social penetration and the lasting effects of its influence are more so. In the nineteenth-century the Pre-Raphaelites, particularly Rossetti, were fired by Martin’s romantic visions, as were the American essayist and poet Ralph Waldo Emmerson and the Brontë sisters, whose Glass Town was inspired by the fantastic architecture found in Martin’s work. Rider Haggard, Jules Verne and H. G. Wells similarly borrowed heavily from Martin's pictures for their literary visions of the sublime, whilst his influence on the visual arts is particularly strong in America, due to the work of one of his followers, Thomas Cole (1801–48), who became the father of American landscape painting. In the twentieth-century Martin’s monumental imagery and grand utopian architecture are known to have directly influenced the films of Cecil B. DeMille and D.W. Griffith’s, as well as the work of the influential stop-motion cinematographer Ray Harryhausen; whose famous fantasy films, from Jason and the Argonauts (1963), to Clash of the Titans (1981) and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977), in turn inspired a generation of filmmakers such as George Lucas and Peter Jackson. Indeed it is hard to look at the luminous, visionary architecture of The Celestial City and the River of Bliss, half hidden in the elysian mists, without seeing a reflection of many of the set designs for the original Star Wars movies. Martin’s surviving oil paintings are extremely rare, and very few are left in private hands. Unlike a number of his contemporary romantic artists, such as William Blake, he enjoyed immense popularity in his lifetime, and the majority of his major works have made their way into museums in Britain and the United States.

1 Paradise Lost, Book 1, lines 710–15: Anon out of the earth a fabric huge / Rose like and exhalation, with the sound / Of dulcet symphonies and voices sweet, / Built like a temple, here pilasters round / Were set, and Doric pillars overlaid / with golden architrave.

2 Published in mezzotint, 1825–27, CW 47.

3 In 1852 Martin confessed to the son of the painting’s original owner in 1852 that he was no longer certain of the exact passage he had intended to illustrate, see M. Myrone (ed.), John Martin, Apocalypse, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain, London 2011, p. 168.

4 W. Feaver, The Art of John Martin, Oxford 1975, pp. 73–74.

5 M. Myrone (ed.), John Martin, Apocalypse, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain, London 2011, p. 11.