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John Martin

Macbeth and the Three Witches

Full screen

Oil on millboard
8 × 12 inches · 200 × 305 mm
Painted c.1849-1851
  • Private collection, Germany, to 2017.

‘Macbeth, upon his return from the Highlands, after the defeat of MacDonald, meets the Weird Sisters on the blasted heath before sunset.
Macbeth: Stay you imperfect speakers, tell me more’
Banquo: Whither are they vanished?’[1]

This exquisitely handled, fluid painting was made by John Martin towards the end of his career. Reprising one of the only Shakespearean subjects Martin tackled, Macbeth meeting the three witches, taken from Act I, Scene 3 of the play, demonstrates Martin’s interest in dramatic climactic events and the supernatural. Martin painted a large-scale painting of this subject in 1820 and exhibited at the British Institution, which was engraved as a celebrated mezzotint made by Thomas Lupton, published in 1828. This finely executed cabinet treatment of the subject is previously unrecorded. Michael Campbell has suggested that it was made towards the end of Martin’s career in around 1850.

John Martin was born in Northumberland and began his career apprenticed initially to a coach-builder in Newcastle upon Tyne to learn herald painting, but left to be instructed by the Piedmontese artist Boniface Musso, whom he followed to London in 1806, to take up a career in china painting. He first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1811, but first made an impact the following year with Sadak in Search of the Waters of Oblivion (St Louis Art Museum, Missouri), a painting remarkable for its combination of dramatic composition and luminous colouration that was to be Martin's speciality for the rest of his career. Martin then produced a series of successful paintings including Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still upon Gibeon in 1816, The Fall of Babylon, exhibited in 1819 at the British Institution and Belshazzar's Feast for which Martin won the first premium of £200 at the British Institution exhibition of 1821. Martin emerged as an artist who was capable of using compositional effects, subject matter and publicity to appeal to a mass audience. Belshazzar’s Feast was acquired by the glass painter William Collins, who exhibited the painting in his shop on The Strand before it toured the country.[2] A description published to accompany the painting cited the archaeological accuracy of Martin’s use of architecture; Martin the showman recognized the allure of ‘authenticity’. As the German critic G. F. Waagen said, such paintings as Belshazzar ‘unite in a high degree the three qualities which the English require above all in a work of art—effect, a fanciful invention, inclining to melancholy, and topographical historical truth.’[3] Martin achieved great commercial success and an international reputation through the prints of his works.

Martin’s large oil of Macbeth first appeared in the midst of his most successful and productive period, being exhibited at the British Institution in 1820, a year after The Fall of Babylon and the year before Belshazzar’s Feast. The painting depicted an early scene of the play, in which Macbeth’s future as first Thane of Cawdor, and then King of Scotland is foretold, specifically the point at which the three witches are about to disappear, having delivered their fateful prophecy on ‘the blasted heath’. The composition demonstrates Martin’s ability to synthesise elements from his previous successful works in a fresh composition: distant armies, super-natural events, portentous skies and a central figure at the moment of a life-changing decision. John Martin himself stated that he considered the painting to be ‘one of my most successful landscapes’ in his autobiographical essay published in The Illustrated London News in 1849.[4]

The 1820 exhibition painting has been lost, but three later versions survive along with a large preparatory watercolour and the mezzotint which appeared in 1828.[5] The present, previously unrecorded oil, reprises the subject of Macbeth, but is a completely autonomous work. Martin has condensed the composition to produce a cabinet-sized painting; the landscape and sky in particular have been made more compact. He appears to have developed the composition from the original oil, but has shifted the orientation to show Macbeth and Banquo looking to the right at the ghostly figures of the three witches evaporating into the raging sky. This change in orientation makes the action of the painting read more naturally from left to right; the witches’ departure is accompanied by the towering grey sky, with a flash of liquid paint indicating lightening, whilst on the far left, the sky has resolved into a golden sunset framed by a wall of cumulus clouds of the sort found throughout John Martin’s original mezzotints such as Satan Viewing the Ascent to Heaven (1824-25). Unlike his earlier, exhibition work, Martin shows Macbeth and Banquo from behind, this was a dramatic conceit he had used in his 1816 Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand still upon Gibeon. Similar too, is the way that Martin shows Macbeth’s army disappearing below the ridge, this was a device he deployed in Joshua and elsewhere in his works. Martin has changed Macbeth and Banquo’s costume, adding to their tartan kilts, armour including a small circular shield, known as a targe which was a traditional highland weapon. Martin we know was keen to achieve a degree of antiquarian accuracy with his historical scenes.[6]

As Michael Campbell has pointed out, the palette is typical of late oils by Martin, with greys set against pinks and a characteristic bolt of lightning. The glowing sunset separated from the storm by banks of cloud and the complex layering of browns which suggest infinite undefined detail in the lower corners are also entirely consistent with Martin’s own compositional technique. Probably painted in the late 1840s or early 1850s, Martin used an artist’s millboard manufactured by Winsor & Newton after their appointment as Royal Colourmen in 1841.

After financially unsuccessful attempts at developing engineering and urban schemes and costly attempts to bring about reform of the copyright laws, projects which diverted his attention from the creation of lucrative oil paintings, Martin was facing financial ruin. He retrenched by selling his engraved plates and his stock of original engravings and by inviting wealthy members of the aristocracy to his studio to sit for his painting of The Coronation of Queen Victoria. Sales and commissions followed and during this period of renewed success he began to produce oils based upon his earlier exhibition works, many of which were on a smaller scale, probably to accommodate the private market.

A visit by Sir Walter Scott to John Martin’s studio in 1831 had already rekindled Martin’s interest in Scottish subjects and he produced a painting of The Highland Fortress of Lessing Cray soon afterwards, the composition of which he reversed in characteristic manner as the basis for this cabinet painting of Macbeth.[7] Martin returned once more to both Shakespearean and Scottish subjects at the beginning of the 1850s. In 1850 he painted a sizeable oil which he exhibited at the British Institution the following year, entitled The Forest of Arden, the subject was stated to be from ‘As You Like It’, Act II, Scene I. In 1851 he painted an elaborate watercolour, recently proposed as a subject from Sir Walter Scott, this sweeping Romantic work shows a clear return to Highland subjects in Martin’s final years.[8]

Richly painted, with highly fluid handling, this oil is a particularly compelling essay in Martin’s grand style made on a domestic scale. Preserved in exceptional condition, this dramatic oil is an important addition to Martin’s oeuvre.

We are very grateful to Michael Campbell for his help in preparing this catalogue entry.


  1. This was the passage that accompanied Martin’s large canvas of Macbeth exhibited at the British Institution in 1820. See Algernon Graves, The British Institution 1806-1867, London, 1908, p.370.
  2. Ed. Martin Myrone, John Martin: Apocalypse, exh. cat., London (Tate Gallery), 2011, pp.99-108.
  3. G. F. Waagen, Works of Art and Artists in England, 1838, London, vol.II, p.162.
  4. Ed. Martin Myrone, John Martin: Sketches of my Life, London, 2011, p.34.
  5. See Michael J. Campbell, John Martin Visionary Printmaker, exh. cat. York (York City Art Gallery), 1992, p.189. 
  6. Martin apparently made inquiries into historical highland dress when preparing the painting in 1820. Leopold Charles Martin, Reminiscences of John Martin, K.L., The Newcastle Weekly Chronicle, Supplement, January 26th 1889, p.1.
  7. Engraved by R. Brandard for The Winter’s Wreath, 1832 facing p.37.
  8. Ed. Martin Myrone, John Martin: Apocalypse, exh. cat., London (Tate Gallery), 2011, cat. no.114, pp.204-205.