The story concerns a man named Williams who acquires pictures of buildings for the library of an unnamed British university. A London art dealer sends him a mezzotint which depicts a large English country house. At first, Williams is unimpressed by the picture. He says that a lack of figures in the mezzotint is one of its flaws. All of Williams' friends who see the picture, however, think that it is a fine work of art. One of them says that there is a figure in the picture, which Williams did not see. Another says that the figure looks somewhat gruesome. Williams later realizes that the image in the mezzotint is gradually changing. A cloaked figure slowly approaches the house in the picture, enters it and leaves with a small child in its arms.
"The Mezzotint" has been adapted for television and radio.
Williams is a university lecturer who lives in rooms at his college. It is his responsibility to acquire drawings and engravings of buildings and towns for the university library. J.W. Britnell, a London art dealer, sends Williams a catalog along with a letter. In the letter, Mr. Britnell says that he thinks Williams will be interested in item 978 in the catalog. He adds that he would be happy to send the picture to Williams, who can choose to either buy it or send it back. The item is an early 19th century mezzotint by an unknown artist which depicts a large country house. The asking price for the picture is two guineas. Williams is not very interested in the picture. He believes, however, that Mr. Britnell knows his customers well and asks for the mezzotint to be sent to him.
The package containing the mezzotint arrives on a Saturday afternoon. Williams is even less impressed with the picture when he sees the original and cannot understand why Britnell is asking two guineas for it. The picture shows an 18th-century manor house with three rows of windows, trees on either side of it and a large lawn in front of it. The mezzotint is clearly the work of an amateur artist. The initials A.W.F. are the only signature on the picture. Williams does not know which building is represented in the mezzotint. On the back of it are the remains of a paper label, on which are written "ngley Hall' and "ssex". Williams knows that the house must be in either Essex or Sussex. Unfortunately, there are a great many large houses in those counties with names that end in "ngley Hall".
Later that afternoon, after it has already begun to get dark, one of Williams' friends, Professor Brink, comes to visit him. Professor Brink notices the mezzotint and asks Williams which house is shown in it. Williams says that he does not know. He goes on to say that he thinks that the price Britnell is asking for it is too much and that it is not a very good picture. He comments that there are not even any figures in it. Brinks agrees that the mezzotint is not worth two guineas but he thinks that it is quite a good picture. He says that the moonlight is well done and points out that there is a figure at the edge of the picture. Williams looks again and sees something that he did not see before. He sees the back of the head of somebody who is wrapped in a cloak and is facing the house.
After dinner, Williams invites some more friends back to his rooms. One of his friends, a man named Garwood notices the mezzotint. He thinks that it is a very good picture. He says that the light is well done and the figure is impressive, although rather grotesque. Williams hears Garwood but does not look at the picture because he is too busy attending to his other guests.
Williams does not look at the picture again until after midnight, when he is preparing to go to bed. He sees a figure in a black cloak with a white cross on the back of it, in the middle of the lawn, crawling towards the house on all fours. Williams takes the mezzotint and puts it face down in a drawer in another room.
The following morning, Williams invites his friend Nisbet to his rooms. Williams takes the picture from the drawer and, without looking at it, asks Nisbet to describe it in minute detail. Nisbet says that the mezzotint shows an English country house by moonlight. He says that he can see a waning moon. Williams does not remember seeing the moon in the picture before. Nisbet says that he cannot see a figure in the picture but he can see that one ground floor window to the left of the door is open. Williams excitedly exclaims, "he must have got in". Williams tells Nisbet about the changes which the picture has undergone since the previous afternoon. Nisbet volunteers to photograph it before it changes again. Both men agree that Green, a senior member of the university's faculty who has traveled extensively in Essex and Sussex, would be able to identify the house in the picture. Unfortunately, Green is away on a short vacation.
Williams brings Garwood back to his rooms. Garwood says that, the previous night, he could clearly see a figure at the edge of the lawn, not in the middle of it. He adds that he could see a white mark on the figure's back but could not tell if it was a cross. Garwood asks Williams if he plans to watch the picture all day. Williams replies that he does not think that is necessary. He does not believe that picture will change in daylight or when people are not looking at it. The three men go out and spend the rest of the afternoon together.
When Williams, Nisbet and Garwood return at five o'clock that evening, they find Williams' door open. Inside, they find a janitor named Robert Filcher, who has never taken any interest in any of Williams' pictures before, sitting in a chair and staring at the mezzotint with a look of horror on his face. Williams asks Filcher what he thinks of the picture. Filcher says that it is not a picture which he would choose to display in his house. He explains that his young daughter was once badly frightened by pictures which she saw in an illustrated Bible and that she would hate to see a picture of a skeleton carrying off a baby.
After Filcher has gone, Williams, Nisbet and Garwood look at the mezzotint again. The ground floor window of the house is now closed. The figure is now walking away from the house on two legs. It is difficult to tell whether the figure is a skeleton or not because its face is largely hidden by its hood. The figure has a small child in its arms. It is impossible to tell if the child is alive or dead. The three friends keep watching the picture for the next two hours but it does not change again. They return to Williams' rooms after dinner and look at the mezzotint again. They see a picture of a house in the moonlight. They see no sign of the figure.
The three men spend most o the rest of the night trying to find out which house is depicted in the picture. From a guidebook to Essex, Williams finds out that it is Anningley Hall. Anningley Hall had been owned by the Francis family, no members of which now survive. The last surviving member of the family, Arthur Francis, a talented amateur engraver in mezzotint, died in 1805, three years after his infant son was abducted.
When Green returns from his vacation, he is asked to provide more information. He says that Arthur Francis always dealt very strictly with poachers that he caught on his land. He always suspected somebody, a man named Gawdy who was the last surviving member of a once illustrious family, of poaching but could not prove it. When Gawdy was eventually caught poaching on Arthur Francis' land, he shot a gamekeeper. He was tried and sentenced to death. It was always suspected that Gawdy, whose death made sure that he had no descendants, took revenge by making Arthur Francis the last surviving member of his family too. It was previously believed that Gawdy had arranged for someone else to abduct Arthur Francis' son after his execution. Arthur Francis' mezzotint suggests that Gawdy rose from the grave and took the boy himself.
J.W. Britnell later says that he knew nothing about the mezzotint's strange properties. The picture is examined to see if it was made using special ink. Nothing unusual is found. The mezzotint is now in a museum. It has been watched constantly but has not been seen to change again.
Along with "Canon Alberic's Scrap-Book", "The Mezzotint" was adapted for the British TV program Two Ghost Stories by M.R. James. The program was first shown on the BBC in 1954. It is now believed to be lost.
Abridged versions of "The Mezzotint" have been read on British television by Michael Bryant (in the fourth episode of the children's TV series Spine Chillers, first shown on BBC 1 on November 21, 1980) and Robert Powell (in the first episode of the mini-series Classic Ghost Stories, first shown on BBC 2 on December 25, 1986).
"The Cemetery", the first of three segments in the pilot episode of the American TV series Night Gallery, first shown on NBC on November 8, 1969, appears to have been influenced by "The Mezzotint". The story concerns a young man named Jeremy Evans (played by Roddy McDowall) who has recently inherited the house and fortune of an uncle whom he hated and whose death he attempted to hasten. Images which Evans sees in several paintings that he owns lead him to believe that his uncle has risen from the grave and is heading towards his house.
"The Figure in the Moonlight", an episode of the American radio series CBS Radio Mystery Theater which first aired on May 2, 1978, is an uncredited adaptation of "The Mezzotint". The story is updated and the setting is changed from England to New Hampshire. The house in the picture no longer exists, having been destroyed by fire. The house's only occupant, a judge who had shot and killed a trespasser, died in the fire. The judge's abducted son was not killed, he was abandoned in Chicago and later adopted.
The British radio play The Midnight House by Jonathan Hall, originally broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in the United Kingdom on March 15, 2006, is heavily influenced by "The Mezzotint". Some passages from the short story are directly quoted in the play. The Midnight House deals with a magical engraving made by the artist William Hogarth, who is said to have dabbled in the occult, as a means of getting rid of his harshest critic. The engraving is rediscovered during World War II, when works from London's National Gallery are moved to Wales for safekeeping. Dr. Collins, the director of the National Gallery, notices that there is a moving figure in the picture. He also begins to dream that he is inside the house depicted in the engraving and knows that the moving figure is coming to get him.
A 15-minute radio play based on "The Mezzotint", starring Mark Gatiss as M.R. James, was first broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in the United Kingdom on December 17, 2018 as the first episode of the five-part mini-series The Haunting of M.R. James.
- In the five-part BBC TV mini-series Classic Ghost Stories, first shown on British television in December 1986, actor Robert Powell reads a different short story by M.R. James in each episode. Other stories read in the series are "The Ash-tree", "Wailing Well", "Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad" and "The Rose Garden'.
- The other episodes of The Haunting of M.R. James are based on "Casting the Runes', "The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral', "A Warning to the Curious" and "Rats".