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John Flaxman


FLAXMAN, JOHN English sculptor and draughtsman, was born at York on July 6, 1755, the second son of John Flaxman, who carried on the trade of a moulder and seller of plaster casts at the sign of the Golden Head, New street, Covent Garden, London. Within six months after his birth the family returned to London, and in his father's back shop he spent an ailing childhood.

He early took delight in drawing and modelling from his father's stock-in-trade. In 17 7o he entered as a Royal Academy student and won the silver medal. In the competition for the gold medal of the Academy in 1772, Flaxman was defeated. But this reverse proved no discouragement; he continued to work both as a student in the schools and as an exhibitor in the galleries of the Academy, occasionally also attempting diversions into the sister art of painting. To the Academy he contributed a wax model of Neptune (177o) ; four portrait models in wax (1771) ; a terra cotta bust, a wax figure of a child, a figure of History (17 7 2) ; a figure of Comedy, and a relief of a Vestal (1773). During these years he received a commission from a friend of the Mathew family, for a statue of Alexander. But by heroic and ideal work of this class he could, of course, make no regular livelihood. In his loth year he was employed by Josiah Wedgwood and his partner, Bentley, as modeller of classic and domestic friezes, plaques, ornamental vessels and medallion portraits, in "jasper" and "basalt" ware.

For 12 years, from his loth to his 32nd (17 7 7) , Flaxman subsisted chiefly by his work for the firm of Wedgwood, but by 178o he had begun to earn something in another branch of his profession, which was in the future to furnish his chief source of livelihood, viz., the sculpture of monuments for the dead. Three of the earliest of such monuments by his hand are those of Chatterton in the church of St. Mary Redcliffe at Bristol (178o), of Mrs. Morley in Gloucester cathedral (1784), and of the Rev. T. and Mrs. Margaret Ball in the cathedral at Chichester (1785) . During the rest of Flaxman's career memorial bas-reliefs of the same class occupied a principal part of his industry; they are to be found scattered in many churches throughout the length and breadth of England. The best are admirable for pathos and sim plicity, and for a Greek instinct for rhythmical design and com position.

In 1782, Flaxman was married to Anne Denman. They set up house at first in Wardour street, sometimes spending their sum mer holidays in the house of the poet Hayley, at Eartham in Sussex. In 1787 they set out for Rome. Flaxman soon ceased modelling for Wedgwood himself, but continued to direct the work for other modellers employed for the manufacture at Rome. He had intended to return after a stay of a little more than two years, but was detained by a commission for a marble group of a Fury of Athamas from the notorious Comte-Eveque, Frederick Hervey, earl of Bristol and bishop of Derry, and did not return until the summer of 1794, having in the meantime executed an other commission (a "Cephalus and Aurora") for Mr. Hope, and having sent home models for several sepulchral monuments, in cluding one in relief for the poet Collins, in Chichester cathedral, and one in the round for Lord Mansfield in Westminster Abbey.

But what gained for Flaxman in this interval a general and European fame was those outline designs to the poets, in which he showed his natural affinity to the ancients and belonged to them. The designs for the Iliad and Odyssey were commissioned by Mrs. Hare-Naylor; those for Dante by Mr. Hope; those for Aeschylus by Lady Spencer ; they were all engraved by Piroli, not without considerable loss of the finer and more sensitive quali ties of Flaxman's own lines.


1797 Flaxman was made an A.R.A. Every year he exhibited work of one class or another; occasionally a public monument in the round, like those of Paoli (1798), or Captain Montague (1802) for Westminster Abbey, of Sir William Jones for St. Mary's, Oxford (1797-1801), of Nelson or Howe for St. Paul's; more often memorials for churches, with symbolic Acts of Mercy or illustrations of Scripture texts, both commonly in low relief (Miss Morley, Chertsey [1797], Miss Cromwell, Chichester [ 1800] , Mrs. Knight, Milton, Cambridge [ 1802 ], and many more) . Soon after his election as associate, he published a scheme, half grandiose, half childish, for a monument to be erected on Greenwich hill, in the shape of a Britannia, 200 ft. high. In 1800 he was elected full academician. In 181 o he was appointed to a chair of sculpture specially created for him by the Royal Academy. The most important works which occupied Flaxman in the follow ing years were the monument to Mrs. Baring in Micheldever church, the richest of all his monuments in relief (1805-1811) ; that for the Worsley family at Campsall church, Yorkshire, which is the next richest; those to Sir Joshua Reynolds for St. Paul's (1807) ; to Captain Webbe for India (181o) ; to Captains Walker and Beckett for Leeds (1811) ; to Lord Cornwallis for Prince of Wales's island (1812) ; and to Sir John Moore for Glasgow (1813).

After his Roman period he produced for a good many years no outline designs for the engraver except three for Cowper's translations of the Latin poems of Milton (181o). Other sets of outline illustrations drawn about the same time, but not pub lished, were one to the Pilgrim's Progress, and one to a Chinese tale in verse, called "The Casket." In 1817 we find him returning to his old practice of classical outline illustrations and publishing the happiest of all his series in that kind, the designs to Hesiod, excellently engraved by the sympathetic hand of Blake. Immedi ately afterwards he was much engaged in designing for the gold smiths—a testimonial cup in honour of John Kemble, and follow ing that, the great labour of the famous and beautiful though quite un-Homeric "Shield of Achilles." Almost at the same time he undertook a frieze of "Peace, Liberty and Plenty," for the duke of Bedford's sculpture gallery at Woburn, and an heroic group of Michael overthrowing Satan, for Lord Egremont's house at Petworth. His literary industry at the same time is shown by several articles on art and archaeology contributed to Rees's Encyclopaedia (1819-2o). In 1822 he delivered at the Academy a lecture in memory of his old friend and generous fellow-crafts man, Canova, then lately dead; in 1823 he received from A. W. von Schlegel a visit of which that writer has left us the record. He died on Dec. 3, 1826.

Of his completed ideal sculptures, the "St. Michael" at Pet worth is the best, and indeed is admirably composed from all points of view; but it lacks fire and force, and the finer touches of the chisel; a little bas-relief like the diploma piece of the "Apollo" and "Marpessa" in the Royal Academy compares with it favourably. This is one of the very few things which he is recorded to have executed in the marble entirely with his own hand; ordinarily he entrusted the finishing work of the chisel to Italian workmen and was content with the smooth mechanical finish which they imitated from the Roman imitations of Greek originals. Of Flaxman's complicated monuments in the round, such as the three in Westminster Abbey and the four in St. Paul's, there is scarcely one which has not something heavy and infelic itous in the arrangement. But when we come to his simple monu ments in relief we find almost always a far finer quality. He did not thoroughly understand composition on the great scale and in the round, but he did thoroughly understand relief, and found scope in it for his remarkable gifts of harmonious design, and ten der, grave and penetrating feeling. But if we would see even the happiest of his conceptions at their best, we must study them, not in the finished marble but rather in the casts from his studio sketches (marred though they have been by successive coats of paint intended for their protection) of which a comprehensive collection is preserved in the Flaxman gallery at University col lege. And the same is true of his happiest efforts in the classical and poetical vein, like the well-known relief of "Pandora Con veyed to Earth by Mercury." We can realize the most essential charm of his genius in the study, not of his modelled work at all, but of his sketches in pen and wash on paper. Of these the principal public collections are at University college, in the British Museum, and the Victoria and Albert Museum.


anonymous sketch "Memoir of James FlaxBibliography.-An anonymous sketch "Memoir of James Flax- man," European Magazine (May, 1823) ; notices in J. T. Smith, Nollekens and his Times (1828) ; "Brief Memoir," Flaxman's Lectures (ed. 1829, and reprinted in subsequent editions) ; A. Cunningham, Lives of the Most Eminent British Painters, vol. iii. ; A. E. Bray, Life of T. Stothard (1851) ; G. Meteyard, Life of Josiah Wedg wood (1865) ; H. Lonsdale, Life and Works of M. L. Watson (1866) ; Diaries and Reminiscences of H. Crabbe Robinson (186g) ; W. M. Rossetti, Works of Wm. Blake (1874) ; F. Wedmore, Studies in English Art (1876-8o) ; S. Colvin, The Drawings of Flaxman, in 32 plates, with descriptions, and an Introductory Essay on the Life and Genius of Flaxman (1876) ; C. R. Leslie, Life and Letters of Constable (18q6) ; A. Gilchrist, Life of Blake (19o7). See also a series of essays by G. F. Teniswood in Art Journal (1867 and 1868) and by Mrs. Stewart (1912) ; "Flaxman," in Dictionary of National Biography; W. G. Constable, John Flaxman, 1755-1826 (1927).

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