The owner of The Destruction of Pharaoh's Host by Martin (1789-1854) had applied for an export licence but the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has temporarily issued an export bar.
The drawing illustrates the Biblical story (Exodus 14) of Moses releasing the waters of the Red Sea, after they had miraculously parted to allow the fleeing Israelites to cross, thereby drowning the pursuing Egyptian army.
Although Martin is best known for his oil paintings and mezzotints illustrating John Milton’s Paradise Lost and the Bible, he also created a series of ‘exhibition watercolours’.
Martin’s mezzotints of Biblical subjects, such as The Destruction of Pharaoh’s Host published in 1833, were hugely popular and influential with admirers including Charles Dickens and the Bronte sisters.
However, Martin’s artistic reputation did not endure as he suffered from the disapproval of the art critic John Ruskin.
In later life Martin focused on engineering schemes for water and sewage.
Despite his works falling out of fashion, a revival began in the early 1950s and Martin’s importance is now more widely recognised.
The decision to defer the export licence follows a recommendation by the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest (RCEWA), administered by The Arts Council.
The RCEWA made its recommendation on the grounds of the picture’s “outstanding significance in the reassessment of John Martin – the most popular artist of his day, dismissed by the art establishment and ignored for almost a century – whose influence on the development of epic, visionary landscape painting, both in Britain and in America, is now widely acknowledged”.
RCEWA member Lowell Libson said: “Working in watercolour played a significant part in Martin’s art throughout his career although he is now best remembered for his exhibition works in oil. The Destruction of Pharaoh’s Host not only demonstrates Martin’s mastery of the medium but underlines how he employed it to achieve emotional and dramatic effects of a subtlety which were impossible in his larger-scale oil paintings.”
A decision on the export licence will be reviewed in May and could be extended until September 21.
The painting previously sold at Christie’s in July 2012 for £758,050 but its current owner has not been disclosed.