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John Flaxman

John Flaxman
Born (1755-07-06)6 July 1755
Died 7 December 1826(1826-12-07) (aged 71)
Nationality British
Known for Sculpture and
Movement Neoclassicism

John Flaxman R.A. (6 July 1755 – 7 December 1826) was a British sculptor and draughtsman, and a leading figure in British and European Neoclassicism. Early in his career he worked as a modeller for Josiah Wedgwood's pottery. He spent several years in Rome, where he produced his first book illustrations. He was a prolific maker of funerary monuments.


  • Early life and education 1
  • Wedgwood 2
  • Early sculptural work 3
  • Marriage 4
  • Italy 5
  • Return to England 6
  • Later life 7
  • Studio practice 8
  • Critical reception 9
  • References 10
  • Sources 11
  • Further reading 12
  • External links 13

Early life and education

He was born in York. His father, also named John (1726-1803), was well known as a moulder and seller of plaster casts at the sign of the Golden Head, New Street, Covent Garden, London. His wife's maiden name was Lee, and they had two children, William and John. Within six months of John's birth the family returned to London. He was a sickly child, high-shouldered, with a head too large for his body. His mother died when he was nine, and his father remarried. He had little schooling, and was largely self-educated. He took delight in drawing and modelling from his father's stock-in-trade, and studied translations from classical literature in an effort to understand them.[1]

Memorial in the church at Badger, Shropshire

His father's customers helped him with books, advice, and later with commissions. Particularly significant were the painter Anthony Stephen Mathew and his wife Mrs. Mathew, in whose house in Rathbone Place the young Flaxman used to meet the best "blue-stocking" society of the day and, among those his own age, the artists William Blake and Thomas Stothard, who became his closest friends. At the age of 12 he won the first prize of the Society of Arts for a medallion, and exhibited in the gallery of the Free Society of Artists; at 15 he won a second prize from the Society of Arts showed at the Royal Academy for the first time. In the same year, 1770, he entered the Academy as a student and won the silver medal. In the competition for the gold medal of the Academy in 1772, however, Flaxman was defeated, the prize being awarded by the president, Sir Joshua Reynolds, to a competitor named Engleheart. This episode seemed to help cure Flaxman of a tendency to conceit which led Thomas Wedgwood V to say of him in 1775, "It is but a few years since he was a most supreme coxcomb."[1]

He continued to work diligently, both as a student and as an exhibitor at the Academy, with occasional attempts at painting. To the Academy he contributed a wax model of Neptune (1770); four portrait models in wax (1771); a terracotta bust, a wax figure of a child, an historical figure (1772); a figure of Comedy; and a relief of a Vestal (1773). During this period he received a commission from a friend of the Mathew family for a statue of Alexander the Great, but he was unable to obtain a regular income from private contracts.


From 1775 he was employed by the potter Josiah Wedgwood and his partner Bentley, for whom his father had also done some work,[2] modelling reliefs for use on the company's jasperware and basaltware.[1] The usual procedure was to model the reliefs in wax on slate or glass grounds before they cast for production. D'Hancarville's engravings of Sir William Hamilton's collection of ancient Greek vases were an important influence on his work.[2]

His designs included the Apotheosis of Homer (1778), later used for a vase; Hercules in the Garden of Hesperides (1785); a large range of small bas-reliefs of which The Dancing Hours (1776-8) proved especially popular; library busts, portrait medallions, and a chess set.[2]

Early sculptural work

By 1780 Flaxman had also begun to earn money by sculpting grave monuments. His early memorials included those to St Matthais Old Church, is now in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.[3] His best monumental work was admired for its pathos and simplicity, and for the combination of a truly Greek instinct for rhythmical design and composition with a spirit of domestic tenderness and innocence.[1]


Anne, Flaxman's wife, by Henry Howard, c.1797

In 1782, aged 27, Flaxman married Anne Denman, who was to assist him throughout his career. She was well-educated, and a devoted companion. They set up house in Wardour Street, and usually spent their summer holidays as guests of the poet William Hayley, at Eartham in Sussex.[1]


In 1787, five years after their marriage,[1] Flaxman and his wife set off for Rome, on a journey partly funded by Wedgwood.[2] His activities in the city included supervising a group of modellers employed by Wedgwood, although he no longer made any work for the potter himself.[1] His sketchbooks show that while there he studied not only Classical, but also Medieval and Renaissance art.[4]

While in Rome he produced the first of the book illustrations for which he was to become famous, and which promoted his influence all over Europe,[4] leading Dante (first published in London in 1807) by Thomas Hope; those for Aeschylus by Lady Spencer. All were engraved by Piroli.[1] Flaxman created one hundred and eleven illustrations to Dante's Divine Comedy which served as an inspiration for such artists as Goya and Ingres, and were used as an academic source for 19th-century art students.[6]

He had originally intended to stay in Italy for little more than two years, but was detained by a commission for a marble group of the Fury of Athamas for Frederick Hervey, Earl of Bristol and Bishop of Derry, which proved troublesome.[1] By the time of his return to England in the summer of 1794, after an absence of seven years, he had also executed Cephalus and Aurora, a group in marble based on a story in Ovid's Metamorphoses. This was bought by Thomas Hope, who arrived in Rome in 1791, and is often said to have commissioned it. Hope was later to make it the centrepiece of a "Flaxman room" at his London home. It is now in the collection of the Lady Lever Art Gallery, Liverpool.[7]

Return to England

During their homeward journey, the Flaxmans travelled through central and northern Italy. On their return they took a house in Buckingham Street, Fitzroy Square.[1] Buckingham Street has since been renamed Greenwell Street, W1; there is a plaque to Flaxman on the front wall of no.7 identifying this as the site of the house where Flaxman lived.[8] Immediately after his return the sculptor published a protest against the scheme (already considered by the French Directory and carried out two years later by Napoleon) to set up a vast central museum of art at Paris to contain works looted from across Europe.[1] Despite this, he later took take advantage of the Peace of Amiens to go to Paris to see the despoiled treasures collected there.[1]

While still in Rome, Flaxman had sent home models for several sepulchral monuments, including one in relief for the poet William Collins in Chichester cathedral, and one in the round for Lord Mansfield in Westminster Abbey.[1]

Later life

A 1795 engraving after Flaxman's drawing of Achilles mourning Patrocles
The Flaxman Gallery of UCL main library in the Octagon building
Memorial to Christian Friedrich Schwarz by John Flaxman, commissioned by Serfoji II, Raja of Tanjore, at the CSI Schwartz Church, Tanjore

In 1797 he was made an associate of the Royal Academy. He exhibited work at the Academy annually, occasionally showing a public monument in the round, like those of Pasquale Paoli (1798) or Captain Montague (1802) for Westminster Abbey, of Sir William Jones for University College, Oxford (1797–1801),[1][9] of Nelson or Howe for St Paul's Cathedral, but more often memorials for churches, with symbolic Acts of Mercy or illustrations of biblical texts, usually in low relief.[1] He made a large number of these smaller funerary monuments; his work was in great demand, and he did not charge particularly high prices.[4] Occasionally he would vary his output with a classical piece like those he favoured in his earlier years.[1]

Soon after his election as Associate of the Academy, he published a scheme for a grandiose monument to be erected on Greenwich Hill, in the form of a figure of Britannia 200 ft (61 m) high, in honour of British naval victories.[1]

In 1800 he was elected a full Academician, and in 1810 the Academy appointed him to the specially-created post of Professor of Sculpture. He was a thorough and judicious teacher, and his lectures were often reprinted. According to the Encyclopædia Britannica of 1911 "With many excellent observations, and with one singular merit — that of doing justice, as in those days justice was hardly ever done, to the sculpture of the medieval schools — these lectures lack point and felicity of expression, just as they are reported to have lacked fire in delivery, and are somewhat heavy reading."[1] The most important works that occupied Flaxman in the years following this appointment 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, those to Sir Joshua Reynolds for St Paul's (1807); to Captain Webbe for India (1810); 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).[1]

He was commissioned to create the monument to Matthew Boulton (died 1809), by Boulton's son, which is on the north wall of the sanctuary of St. Mary's Church, Handsworth, Birmingham, where Boulton is buried.[10] It includes a marble bust of Boulton, set in a circular opening above two putti, one holding an engraving of the Soho Manufactory.

Around this time there was much debate over the of the merits of the sculptures from the Parthenon in Athens, which had been brought to Britain by Lord Elgin, and were hence popularly known as the Elgin marbles.[1] When Flaxman first saw them at Elgin's house in 1807, he advised against their restoration.[11] Flaxman's statements in favour of their purchase by the government to a parliamentary commission carried considerable weight; the sculptures were eventually bought in 1816.[1] His designs for the friezes of Ancient Drama and Modern Drama, for the facade of the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, made in 1809 and carved by John Charles Felix Rossi, provide an early example of the direct influence of the marbles on British sculpture.[12]

In the years immediately following his Roman period he produced fewer outline designs for publication, except three for Lord Egremont's Petworth House[1] (delivered after Flaxman's death.)[14] His literary industry at the same time is shown by several articles on art and archaeology contributed to Rees's Encyclopaedia (1819–20).[1]

Flaxman's name listed on the south face of the Burdett Coutts memorial

In 1820 Flaxman's wife died. Her younger sister, Maria Denman, and his own sister, Maria Flaxman, continued to live with him, and he continued to work hard. In 1822 he delivered at the Academy a lecture in memory of his old friend, Canova, then recently dead; in 1823 he received a visit from Schlegel, of which the latter wrote an account.[1]

He died, aged 71, on 7 December 1826.[1] His name is listed as one of the important lost graves on the Baroness Burdett Coutts Memorial in Old St. Pancras Churchyard.

Studio practice

Most of the carving of his works was carried out by assistants; Margaret Whinney thought that, as a result "the execution of some of his marbles is a little dull" but that "his plaster models, cast from his own designs in clay, frequently show more sensitive handling".[4] Early in his career, Flaxman made his works in the form of small models which his assistants would scale up when making the finished marble versions. In many cases, notably with the monument to Lord Howe, this proved problematic, and for his later works he produced full-sized plaster versions for his employees to work from.[14]

Critical reception

Flaxman's complicated monuments in the round, such as the three in Westminster Abbey and the four in St Paul's Cathedral, are considered too "heavy"; but his simple monuments in relief are of finer quality. He thoroughly understood relief, and it gave better scope for his particular talents. His compositions are best studied in the casts from his studio sketches, of which a comprehensive collection is preserved in the Flaxman gallery at University College, London.[15] The principal public collections are at University College, in the British Museum, and the Victoria and Albert Museum.[1]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab ac Encyclopædia Britannica, 1911
  2. ^ a b c d
  3. ^
  4. ^ a b c d e Whinney 1971, p.137
  5. ^
  6. ^
  7. ^
  8. ^
  9. ^ According to theVictoria History of the Counties of England, Oxfordshire vol.III, p.80, this monument had originally been intended for Calcutta. University College has three other memorials by Flaxman: to Sir Robert Chambers, like Jones a Fellow of the College, judge and orientalist, Nathan Wetherell, Master 1764–1807, and Matthew Rolleston, Fellow of the College.
  10. ^
  11. ^ Whinney 1971, p.140
  12. ^ Whinney 1971, p.140. The friezes survived the theatre's destruction by fire in 1856, and were reused on the present building.
  13. ^
  14. ^ a b Whinney 1971, p.144
  15. ^ John Flaxman Collection, University College London.


  • Public Domain This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain

Further reading

  • Petherbridge, Deanna, 'Some Thoughts on Flaxman and the Engraved Outlines', Print Quarterly, XXVIII, 2011, pp. 385–91.
  • - Flaxman was a prominent Swedenborgian.

External links

  • Media related to at Wikimedia Commons
  • Information from the National Portrait Gallery (London)
  • World of Dante — Flaxman's illustrations of Divine Comedy in World of Dante gallery
  • John Flaxman's Biography, style and artworks
  • John Flaxman's illustrations of the Iliad
  • John Flaxman's illustrations of the Odyssey
  • Biography
  • John Flaxman at Find a Grave and at
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