We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
  John Flaxman (1755–1826), by George Romney, 1795 [modelling the bust of William Hayley] John Flaxman (1755–1826), by George Romney, 1795 [modelling the bust of William Hayley]
Flaxman, John (1755–1826), sculptor, decorative designer, and illustrator, was born on 6 July 1755 in York, the second son of three children of John Flaxman (1726–1795), a minor sculptor and producer of plaster casts and models, and his first wife, formerly Miss Lee (d. c.1763); he was the younger brother of William [see below] and half-brother of Mary Ann [see below].

Early work and career

The Flaxman family settled in London the year after John's birth and the boy was educated in the Covent Garden shop and studio of his father, who worked for leading London sculptors including L. F. Roubiliac and Peter Scheemakers. Sickly and slightly hunchbacked, young Flaxman was known for his drawing skills at an early age and, through his father's professional contacts, met several future patrons who played crucial roles in his career, notably the portrait painter George Romney and the potter Josiah Wedgwood. In 1767 the boy received his first commission from Mr Crutchley of Sunninghill for six black chalk drawings of subjects from classical literature; in the same year he began regularly to exhibit wax and plaster models at the Free Society of Arts in London.

From the early 1770s Flaxman exhibited portraits in terracotta and plaster, allegorical classical figures, and subjects from Ovid and Homer at the Royal Academy in London, where he won a silver medal in 1771. By 1775 he had begun to design decorative figures for the Wedgwood pottery factory, becoming arguably the most famous and skilful of all the artists employed by the potter. Flaxman's flowing, delicate lines, especially suited to the decorative reliefs on vases and plaques, also appeared in wax and terracotta portraits where accuracy was crucial to the production of popular medallions of contemporary luminaries produced by Wedgwood in the 1770s and 1780s. Examples include the oval blue and white jasper medallion of Captain Cook (c.1779; Wedgwood Museum, Barlaston, Staffordshire), the white jasper one of Sarah Siddons (1782; Wedgwood Museum, Barlaston, Staffordshire), and the white relief likeness, on black jasper, of Dr Samuel Johnson (1784; Wedgwood Museum, Barlaston, Staffordshire). The Apotheosis of Homer (design 1778, vase 1786; BM), Flaxman's most famous moulded relief in white jasperware (a fine white clay), was given by Wedgwood to the British Museum and highly praised by Sir William Hamilton: ‘I never saw a bas relief executed in the true and simple antique style half so well’ (Bindman, 56). Flaxman also designed a set of medieval-styled chessmen for Wedgwood, objects which reflected the sculptor's growing enthusiasm for medieval art.

Flaxman met William Blake and Thomas Stothard at the Royal Academy and was inspired by Blake's semi-abstract, undulating line drawings. The young sculptor's own talents as a draughtsman made him particularly aware of contemporary fashions in graphic art. Two self-portraits (1778–9; Earls High School, Halesowen, and UCL, signed and dated 1779) demonstrate his interest in imitating in pen the techniques of copperplate engraving, while the figure with large eyes, long hair, and introverted expression betrays his admiration for similar, proto-romantic self-portraits by John Hamilton Mortimer and James Barry. Following the example of his fellow artists at the Royal Academy, Flaxman turned to medieval art as a means of exploring the flowing linear rhythms of a new vital and primitive style. He admired the tomb sculpture, decorative carving, and paintings in Westminster Abbey, York Minster, and Lincoln and Wells cathedrals. He never lost his taste for portraying images from antique poetry and Roman history, but he was also to play an important role in the development of the British Gothic revival, discovering the beauties of early English and native Gothic sculpture and architecture.

By 1780 Flaxman's principal ambition was to become a designer of funerary monuments and his later analysis of tomb sculpture in the lectures he gave to the Royal Academy reveals how important he considered British monumental sculpture in the history of artistic commemoration. He particularly admired the work of Thomas Banks (1735–1805), and in an address given to the Royal Academy in 1805 Flaxman revealed how far he had come under the influence of this major British sculptor. Flaxman's first tomb design was for a monument to Thomas Chatterton (exh. 1780) at the height of the posthumous craze in London for Chatterton memorabilia and biographical souvenirs. Flaxman made several drawings in connection with this tomb, which was never erected, and they reveal the artist's personal enthusiasm and reverence for the subject as well as the stylistic influence of contemporary ‘sublime’ masters such as Henry Fuseli (c.1775–85; FM Cam. and BM). Shortly after his marriage in 1782 to Ann Denman (c.1760–1820), Flaxman received his first major sculptural commission to design a monument for a Mrs Sarah Morley who had died in childbirth at sea, and the nature of the subject appealed to the sculptor's taste for the poetic and tragic. Erected in Gloucester Cathedral the Morley monument has a strong dramatic quality: its emotional appeal centres on the principal figure rising above realistically depicted stormy waves, deriving from the realism of earlier sculptors such as Roubiliac and Joseph Wilton. However, the attendant angels have the energy and grace of figures which the sculptor had studied in Westminster Abbey. The influence of Banks can be seen in the rhythmic quality of the contours and in the clever combination of antique and Gothic forms. Flaxman's first biographer, Allan Cunningham, alluded to the strength and energy of the design which he felt derived from a poetic sensibility: ‘It elevates the mind, and not without tears’ (Cunningham, 293). The uniqueness of this imagery in English sculpture at the time won Flaxman more commissions, but with the intention of enlarging his artistic repertoire with a visit to Italy he and his wife departed for Rome in 1787.

Italy, 1787–1794

Flaxman's seven-year sojourn in Rome changed his career and transformed him from an obscure British sculptor into a major international figure with proven ability in monumental and free-standing sculpture and in graphic design. His travel notebooks and sketchbooks (BL, FM Cam., UCL) reveal how meticulous were the records he kept of works of art seen in France and Italy. Sketches after Lorenzo Maitani's Last Judgment at Orvieto, works by Masaccio, the Pisani, Brunelleschi, Michelangelo, and Bernini as well as the masterpieces of antiquity demonstrate how profoundly this versatile scholar artist investigated the principal stylistic constituents of Renaissance and seventeenth-century art. Flaxman also made copies after early Italian masters and medieval carving, and his sketchbooks contain drawings which transform paintings and sculpture into brief, undulating silhouettes. His unusual enthusiasms brought him to the notice of several influential scholars, patrons, and fellow artists, notably W. Y. Ottley, who became the first keeper of prints and drawings at the British Museum; the neoclassical sculptor Antonio Canova; Guy Head, the Irish painter; and Thomas Hope, scion of the wealthy banking family.

Although his first year in Italy was not lucrative Flaxman continued sending designs to the Wedgwood factory and made a series of plaster casts for George Romney, who was one of the sculptor's closest admirers. Flaxman also worked on several highly original pieces of sculpture, including Hercules and Hebe, the figure of Hercules being a reconstruction based on the Torso Belvedere (plaster model, UCL), and the marble two-figure group Aurora Visiting Cephalus on Mount Aurora (1790–91; Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight, Cheshire), a subject from Ovid, both of which were commissioned by Thomas Hope. Flaxman's group reveals the effect of the sculptor's new first-hand knowledge of antique sculpture: the figures of Aurora and Cephalus are based on a Nike or winged victory and the Apollo Belvedere, and illustrate Ovid's tragic story of the doomed love between mortal and immortal. Made for Hope's London house where Flaxman's marble group became the centrepiece for a special antique-styled room, this marble group attracted much attention and contributed to Flaxman's growing reputation as the foremost English sculptor of the period.

However, an even more original work produced in Rome resulted from a meeting which Canova arranged between Flaxman and the bishop of Derry, the earl of Bristol, who ordered a large free-standing marble group for the vestibule of his Suffolk manor house, Ickworth House. The resulting statue is one of the most important and influential to be produced in the late eighteenth century, initiating passion and violence into the sculptural portrayal of antique poetry and using Hellenistic imagery as source material in a way that few since the Renaissance had dared to contemplate. The Fury of Athamas (1790–93; Ickworth House, Suffolk) depicts another subject from Ovid's Metamorphoses, a text on which Flaxman often relied, but never portrayed before on so grand a scale. The story of the maddened king of Thebes killing one of his own children became the first occasion when a neoclassical sculptor had treated the subject of homicidal lunacy and was to set a precedent for Canova's monumental group of the maddened Hercules, Hercules and Lychas (1795–1815; Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna, Rome). While Canova's sculpture is more dynamic and contains an erotic liveliness, Flaxman's figures express a strong sense of movement, elegance, and appropriate characterization which won him great esteem among many of his contemporaries. The earl of Bristol wrote in 1792: ‘Flaxman will rise to be the first sculptor in Europe, the exquisite Canova not excepted’ (Symmons, 64). And, as late as 1815, the architect C. R. Cockerell was to add: ‘Canova is no poet; he has no severe and elevated idea of his art, at least in comparison with Flaxman’ (Bindman, 33).

Athamas is a synthetic piece, deriving partly from the Laocoön, and partly from the Gaul Killing his Wife and himself which in Flaxman's day stood in the Villa Ludovisi (now in Rome, Museo dei Terme) and which the English sculptor copied several times during his Roman period. Flaxman himself attributed the achievement of his Athamas to the patronage he was able to obtain in Rome: ‘Who would have employed me in England to make a group 7 feet high of a man and a woman, an infant and a larger child? I never yet heard of an English sculptor being employed on such a work’, he wrote enthusiastically in 1790 (Symmons, 72). His delight over the uniqueness of the Athamas commission turned sour when the earl of Bristol failed to pay him adequately for the materials and labour: many of the sculptor's later financial problems derived mainly from this one professional disaster. However, in seeking out new commissions to remedy his monetary problems Flaxman rose to even greater heights of originality. The personal vision he had attained through his response to the works of art studied in England and on the continent reached fruition in a series of new and quite different masterpieces which won him international fame and made him posthumously one of the most influential of all British artists, with a reputation which remained intact well into the twentieth century.

The outline illustrations and their influence

The poetic elements of Flaxman's sculpture may have suggested his potential talent as an illustrator. Before leaving England for Italy the artist had considered making cycles of illustrations to Sophocles, Milton, and the fake ‘primitive’ poetry of Thomas Chatterton. His interest in early British history coincided with that of Blake, who painted a number of British historical subjects, both factual and imaginary. In Rome Flaxman was recorded as spending many evenings drawing illustrations to his favourite texts. These were principally British, notably subjects from Bishop Percy's Reliques of Ancient Poetry and illustrations to the Pilgrim's Progress (UCL, FM Cam., and the Huntington Collection, San Marino, California). He hoped to interest prospective buyers in his drawings, but those who were prepared to commission sets of illustrations were mainly British with a taste for the classics. Although Flaxman proposed a set of illustrations to Milton in 1792, he was actually commissioned to produce outline illustrations to Homer by Mrs Hare Naylor, who later employed Flaxman's half-sister as governess to her children, while Thomas Hope commissioned 109 illustrations to Dante's Divine Comedy.

Both works seem to have been produced concurrently, and, according to Flaxman's wife, who kept a record of her husband's activities, the drawings were probably started some time in April or May 1792. The style of these drawings was new in Flaxman's repertoire. His early pre-Roman drawings had been washed in with contrasts backing up a linear style of figure drawing. The illustrations to Percy and Bunyan are pure outline with little depth. Mostly the figures emerge from a few inked lines, varying in width, and are set in a shallow space, analogous to sculptural relief, rather like the decorative, small-scale figures designed for Wedgwood. The numerous preparatory sketches Flaxman made for the illustrations to Homer's Iliad and Odyssey and to Dante show the stages he went through to achieve the power of each completed illustration. One sketchbook (Flaxman sketchbook 736* F, FM Cam.) consists of drawings for Dante's Inferno and contains thickly outlined figures probably made with a heavily loaded brush, and a strong sense of dramatic narrative as the figures move heavily across the page. By the time the final drafts were etched by the Italian engraver Tommaso Piroli they had been considerably refined and much of the original graphic energy lost. Nevertheless the unique effect produced by these illustrations probably came from the tension and clarity of Flaxman's lines and the way they seem to stretch across the blank paper, reducing expression and action to the minimum. The images anticipate strip cartoons; Flaxman would sometimes draw a before-and-after sequence of events, and the story emerges in flat, linear clarity without secondary considerations.

Enthusiasts who first saw the outlines compared Flaxman's Homer to the text by Alexander Pope, as if the sculptor were providing a new form of translation. Others thought the simplicity of the designs was analogous to the simplicity of figures from ancient vase paintings. As a lover of silhouette and side-angles, Flaxman was loath to make his figures face the spectator, but occasionally he was forced to adapt his imagery to suit both the patrons and the engraver. Finished plates have some curious foreshortening and widely spread frontal views which make the blank white paper seem even heavier. The discrepancy between original drawings and the final engravings was noted by Flaxman's friends and by the artist himself, who occasionally complained about the interference of his patrons. He was recorded as saying that he did not think much of his designs and would have preferred to have illustrated Milton. Nevertheless the outlines have remained among his most enduring masterpieces.

In the plates to Dante's Inferno, in particular, Flaxman produced his most famous poetic images, ones which haunted paintings, illustrations, and even literature of the nineteenth century. His depiction of Paolo and Francesca in the whirlwind of the lustful (Inferno, canto 5) shows a solid white space peopled by thin vulnerable figures caught in the cold implacable damnation. The torments of adulterers are reduced to scratched, undulating lines reminiscent of the whorls of a thumbprint, and a few matchstick strokes summon up distant figures of other doomed souls, while the poet Virgil crouches isolated on the ground attempting to revive Dante who has fainted with horror at the scene. One reason for the effectiveness of Flaxman's graphic imagery is the way traditional observations of pictorial drama have been evaded. The damned cover their faces with their hands, the horrors of hell have become blank whiteness. Later illustrators of Dante, William Blake, for example, put the same scene into a forceful design with colour washes over the outlines, but Blake like many later portrayers of Dante owed a good deal to Flaxman's strikingly original example.

The distribution of Flaxman's illustrations was at first limited. The Odyssey appeared between February and April 1793 and the Iliad and Dante's Divine Comedy in July of the same year. Thomas Hope kept the copyright of the Dante illustrations and there was only a small first edition and no major distribution, but pirated copies appeared and a new edition came out in Rome and Paris in 1802. In 1795, the year after he returned from Italy to England, Flaxman completed another set of illustrations, thirty-one plates to the tragedies of Aeschylus, and he also published the first English edition of the Iliad. At this time Flaxman was particularly close to Blake, from whom he commissioned a set of illustrations to Thomas Gray's poetry in 1797, and the sculptor's interest in poetic illustration seems to have remained strong, perhaps because the growth of foreign admirers for his graphic works far outweighed the attention he received in England where he was still regarded primarily as a sculptor. In 1805 the London publisher Longman brought out new English editions of the Odyssey, Iliad, and Aeschylus, and Flaxman added eleven new plates to the Homer illustrations and five to the Aeschylus. In 1816 Flaxman negotiated a new contract with Longman for design to Hesiod which appeared in 1817 with stipple engravings by Blake.

Critics writing in the 1790s and early 1800s were fascinated by Flaxman's bold compositional brevity, and the power of these understated images became part of a Europe-wide experiment, as artists from Philip Otto Runge in Germany to Francisco Goya in Madrid copied and adapted the designs into their own work. In Italy Flaxman's close professional acquaintance with Canova also brought him into contact with one of Napoleon's principal designers, Charles Percier. After the peace of Amiens in 1802 Percier was one of the first French artists to welcome the British sculptor to Paris where Flaxman went in order to view the Musée Napoleon. There he met pupils and associates of the neoclassical painter Jacques Louis David—notably J. A. D. Ingres, Anne-Louis Girodet, and Alexandre Lenoir, director of the Musée des Petits Augustins. Flaxman's passion for medieval antiquities as well as for the beauties of Greek and Roman sculpture would have made him sympathetic to the aims of these Frenchmen, and he gave copies of his illustrations to these new admirers. Ingres and Girodet made numerous studies after Flaxman's work. Ingres included a portrait of the English sculptor, copied from an illustration of John Jackson's portrait of Flaxman (c.1819) reproduced as the frontispiece to volume 3 of Allan Cunningham's Lives of the Eminent British Painters, Sculptors and Architects (1830–31). He figures among the élite in the fantastic pen drawing of Homère déifié (in or before 1827; Musée Ingres, Montauban), which shows the greatest artists of all time gathered together in a Greek temple to pay homage to Homer. The walls of the temple are decorated with precise copies of Flaxman's illustrations to the Iliad. David predicted that Flaxman's unique drawing style would inspire many paintings, and famous French artists, from Géricault to Degas and Seurat, continued the tradition of making copies after Flaxman's illustrations. The Parisian periodical L'Artiste (6/18, 1833, 209–10) recorded that the portfolios of French art students always contained copies after the greatest masters of graphic design, notably, Dürer, Rembrandt, Goya, and Flaxman.

In Germany, too, Flaxman was acclaimed as both sculptor and illustrator. His half-sister recorded seeing copies after his sculpture being sold in Hamburg, and in Weimar she met Goethe, who told her how much he admired her brother's art. The first published analysis of the outline illustrations, however, came from the writer and critic August von Schlegel. He had been given a rare first edition of the illustrations to Dante, and he published a detailed and very flattering critique in the Jena periodical Athenaeum in 1799. Although Flaxman himself wrote that his intention was to transfer his illustrations into decorative reliefs for both sacred and civil architecture, there is no doubt that his major contribution to the development of European art in the century following his death occurred when the strange new drawing style which he had started to develop at an early age was engraved. The many copies of Flaxman's designs available to art students caused his style to become accessible on a vast international scale and Schlegel was to prophesy that the outline illustrations would be immortalized as the nearest artistic approximation between painting and poetry.

The post-Italian career

The capturing of mood and subtlety of expression in both engraving and sculpture was always considered to be among Flaxman's major qualities as artist and designer. The funeral monuments he produced after he returned from Italy, at the end of the eighteenth and in the first decade of the nineteenth centuries, are particularly striking in this respect. Known for the delicacy of his modelling techniques Flaxman built on his primacy in plaster and terracotta sketches established early in his career. The plaster sketch for the memorial to Agnes Cromwell (1799; UCL) is one of the few surviving plaster modelli of Flaxman's career. The image is formed from a constricted series of lines, rather similar to the artist's drawing style. The connection between plaster sketches, where movement and the palpable weight of figures are heavily modelled, and the drawings which professional engravers turned into illustrations, is here particularly relevant: the hardness of the finished marble version (Chichester Cathedral) becomes a less imaginative medium similar to the linear heaviness of engraving. Flaxman's admirers occasionally lamented the deadness of the engraved line imposed on his subtle drawings just as the small modelli which he created for sculpture have a lively, animated quality lost in the final cutting and enlargement of the model. Nevertheless the shallowness of the marble relief in the Cromwell monument, together with the surge of the upward movement showing the soul of the dead girl borne to heaven, gives this type of memorial immense rhythmic harmony, an originality which was adopted later by many Victorian tomb designers. Flaxman also transformed the neoclassical convention of the draped mourning girl in designs such as the monument to Barbara Lowther (1805–7; plaster modello, UCL; completed tomb in church of St Mary Magdalene, Richmond) which forms a subtle variation on a popular theme with the girl turning her head away from the spectator, a low viewpoint, and a full figure, none of which distorts the rhythm of the composition. Flaxman's female mourners are delicately grave and exercised immense influence on nineteenth-century tomb sculpture.

Small, hunchbacked, and bald, Flaxman was completely different from the mythical image of the heroic, muscular sculptor. His appearance and retiring, rather timid manner were to make him a conscientious worker but a bad self-publicist, and as he grew older his market declined. The general opinion of his admirers was that he was too unworldly. One of his most prestigious monuments, Admiral Howe (1803–11; St Paul's Cathedral, London), was criticized because Flaxman got the admiral's uniform wrong, adding incorrect pantaloons and putting the ribbon of his order over the wrong shoulder. C. R. Cockerell recorded the fuss made by the British navy over the sculptor's unfortunate blunder: ‘An unpardonable historical error—this arose from Flaxman's living too little in the world,’ he wrote (Bindman, 33). Nevertheless the impressive quality of Flaxman's best sculpture ensured that his work was on display in all the major cathedrals, municipal buildings, and galleries throughout Britain in the nineteenth century. Among his most memorable pieces are his monument to the lord chief justice, the first earl of Mansfield (1795–1801; Westminster Abbey, London), the monument to Lord Nelson (1808–18; St Paul's Cathedral, London), and many touching images of women, such as the monument to Lady Fitzharris (1817; Christchurch Priory, Hampshire). Flaxman was often considered to achieve more feeling in intimate reliefs; his monument to Dr Joseph Warton, headmaster of Winchester College (1804, Winchester Cathedral), and the monument to the orientalist Sir William Jones (1798; University College, Oxford; exh. RA, 1801) have great feeling and immediacy. Less happy are the memorial statues to famous British figures such as Joshua Reynolds (1803–13; St Paul's Cathedral; model exh. RA, 1807) and Robert Burns (1822; Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh), which are stiff and lifeless. Nevertheless, even towards the end of his career Flaxman could still infuse energy and passion into poetic subjects, and his over-lifesize marble group of a subject from Milton, Satan Overcome by St Michael (exh. 1822; Petworth House, Sussex), has the energy of the Athamas and was so admired that it was made the subject of a watercolour by Turner and described by Cunningham as ‘a work of the highest merit—the conception is epic’ (Cunningham, 355). Nevertheless, the sculptor's final years were comparatively unsuccessful as he competed for work with the larger studios of Francis Chantrey and John Rossi, who both owed much to the stylistic innovations of the older man's art but who virtually took over his market.

The artist's later years showed him to be no less versatile, however, than he had been in his youth. The clarity of Flaxman's linear designs which gave such gracefulness to his pottery decorations also enabled him to produce memorable work for the royal gold- and silversmiths Rundell, Bridge, and Rundell. The Trafalgar vase (V&A) was commissioned in order to set up a patriotic fund for casualties and their dependants in 1805 after the battle of Trafalgar: Flaxman's decorations for this work consisted of straightforward national symbols, lion, oak leaves, Britannia, and Hercules. This design contrasted strongly with the complexity of Flaxman's reconstruction of the shield of Achilles, described in the eighteenth book of Homer's Iliad (design exh. RA, 1805). Made in silver gilt in 1821–2 (Royal Collection) the work demonstrates the strength of Flaxman's hard-edged pattering and lively contours. Probably one of the first European sculptors to bring this constricted, undulating style into decorative relief work on popular patriotic ornaments and memorials Flaxman achieved in silver gilt a mastery no less striking than that of his marble and line drawing.

Arguably, the greatest public appreciation of Flaxman was bestowed on the artist by the Royal Academy when he was appointed the first professor of sculpture in 1810. Having been elected an associate of the academy in 1797 and a full member in 1800 he never ceased to exhibit modelli and sculptural designs at the annual exhibitions. His lectures were widely criticized by contemporaries for their gravity and scholarly earnestness. Shortly before he died Flaxman told a visiting German admirer, Ludwig Schorn:
It was the purpose of my lectures to the Academy to show that art in Christianity can rise higher than in paganism, since Christian ideas are more sublime than pagan ones, and the best that the art of Greece and Rome has produced is, to my mind, also contained in Christian ideas … and I maintain that there are more suitable artistic subjects to be found in the Old and New testaments than in pagan mythology. (Bindman, 31)
The contents of his lectures show Flaxman to have had extensive knowledge of the history of his medium, and his interest in strange new subject matter paralleled the enthusiasms of more radical art students on the continent such as the group known as les Primitifs in the studio of David. Nevertheless, as a retiring man who had little commercial success in the last twenty years of his life Flaxman was wary of promoting his remarkable ideas. ‘As professor of the London academy I have also given lectures on art history but I do not dare, like Fuseli, Opie and Reynolds, to appear before the public with them’ (Bindman, 31). In fact, Flaxman's lectures were published posthumously in 1829 with a number of lithographic illustrations after the artist's original drawings showing primitive figures and Egyptian, antique, and Gothic sculpture. His analysis of the sculpture on the west front of Wells Cathedral demonstrates his sensitivity to earlier styles, just as his enthusiasm for the early Christian art remained with him while he was imbibing classical Renaissance influences in Italy. His friendship with W. Y. Ottley continued throughout his life: when Ottley published one of the first English studies of early Renaissance art—A series of plates engraved after paintings and sculptures of the most eminent masters of the early Florentine school (1826)—he dedicated it to Flaxman. In the same year, on 7 December, the sculptor died in London. He was interred, as he wished, not in St Paul's Cathedral but in St Pancras cemetery.

Flaxman's posthumous reputation

Innovative as both artist and craftsman Flaxman was one of the first great European masters to devote his talents to industry and adapt his austere vision of the art of the past to the beautification of household implements, decorative commercial objects, and the embellishment of public buildings. It is ironic that his adaptability and hard work never brought him financial security. After his death his studio and effects were seized by his creditors and many of his surviving models and effects were sold off. Admirers and benefactors, including Henry Crabb-Robinson and Edwin Field, set up an endowment designed to keep Flaxman's reputation alive and conserve his surviving works, many of which were given to University College, London. Here in 1851 the Flaxman Gallery opened and was celebrated with a banquet in memory of the artist. Significantly, this was an international affair, with artists and scholars from several European countries and toasts given in three languages, commemorating the sculptor's wide influence abroad. Prince Albert was one of the patrons of the whole enterprise and was numbered among the sculptor's admirers. Although Flaxman's reputation had become somewhat obscure by the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century, revival of interest in neoclassicism in the 1960s and 1970s and the first comprehensive retrospective exhibition of all aspects of Flaxman's art held at the Hamburger Kunsthalle, the Thorwaldsen Museum in Copenhagen, and the Royal Academy in London in 1979 have served to re-establish Flaxman's status as arguably the most widely celebrated British sculptor before Henry Moore. Nevertheless, much of his posthumous fame still turns on the novelty and power of his illustrations and his unique drawing style, so often compared with that of his greatest colleague, Blake. In 1874 a statue of him by Henry Weekes was erected on the façade of Burlington House in London, placed alongside eight further statues of great artists, including Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and Joshua Reynolds. Portrayed leaning on a bust of Homer, Flaxman is epitomized as a scholarly dreamer, dressed in an elegant suit, pantaloons, and a long-skirted jacket. His hair is also long and plentiful, as it is in the early self-portraits, and his chin rests on his hand in a thinker's pose. Thirty years later Flaxman's place within the history of British art was signalled by his inclusion as one of only six sculptors among the British artists represented on the façade of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

William Flaxman (b. 1753?), sculptor and woodcarver, was probably born in London in 1753, eldest of three children of John Flaxman the cast maker, and elder brother of John Flaxman the sculptor and designer. His earliest recorded work, a model of a Venus, was exhibited in 1768 at the Free Society of Arts and he went on to exhibit mainly portraits at the Royal Academy in the 1770s and 1780s, including a wax portrait of his brother John in 1781. His last recorded exhibit was in 1793 and he may have inherited the parental home in the Strand after his father's death in 1795. He probably carried on his father's cast business and may also have painted miniatures. The date and place of William Flaxman's death are not known.

Mary Ann Flaxman (1768–1833), artist, was the daughter of John Flaxman sen. and his second wife, Elizabeth Gordon, whom he had married on 27 February 1763 at St Anne's, Soho, London. Mary Ann was baptized on 31 July 1768 at St Martin-in-the-Fields, Westminster. At the age of four she sat to her half-brother, John, for a portrait in wax (V&A) in which she is figured sitting in a chair, her foot balanced on a mug, holding her doll. ‘It is a piece of perfect observation with delicate touches within the rendering of the hair, the ruched lace bonnet and the drapery folds of her dress’ (http://npg.org.uk/live/mirrc5.asp). Mary Ann exhibited at the Free Society of Artists, the Society of Artists, and the Royal Academy between 1786 and 1819. She showed miniature portraits and genre pictures including Ferdinand and Matilda Playing Chess (1819) and Maternal Piety (1819), and also drawings and designs; many of these were illustrations to poems. She also executed portraits in wax. For several years she lived as a governess with the Hare Naylor family, first in Italy and afterwards in Weimar. From 1810 she lived with John Flaxman and his wife in Buckingham Street until the sculptor's death in 1826. Sidney Colvin noted that ‘Her work in art was strongly influenced by his example, and shows both talent and feeling. She is best known by the six designs for [William] Hayley's Triumphs of temper’, engraved by Blake, and published in 1803 (DNB). Mary Ann Flaxman died on 17 April 1833. Her obituary in the Liverpool Mercury (26 April 1833) stated that ‘she was sister to the late eminent sculptor, and allied to him not more nearly by blood but by congeniality of character’. A miniature portrait attributed to Mary Ann as a self-portrait (c.1820; NPG) shows her aged about fifty in a white, lace-edged mob cap, ruff collar, and pale blue shawl over a purple dress. Her calm expression is described in the gallery's catalogue as ‘smiling’ (Walker, 1.189).

Sarah Symmons

Sources  

D. Bindman, ed., John Flaxman R. A. (1979) [exhibition catalogue, Royal Academy] · S. Symmons, Flaxman and Europe: the outline illustrations and their influence (1984) · D. Irwin, John Flaxman, 1755–1826, sculptor, illustrator and designer (1979) · R. R. Wark, Drawings by John Flaxman in the Huntington Collection (1970) · J. Flaxman, Lectures on sculpture … as delivered before the president and members of the Royal Academy, with a brief memoir of the author, 2nd edn (1838) · A. Cunningham, Lives of the most eminent British painters, sculptors and architects, 2nd edn, 6 vols., 3 (1830–31) · J. T. Smith, Nollekens and his times, 2 vols. (1828) · N. Penny, Church monuments in Romantic England (1977) · freepages.genealogyrootsweb.com [Liverpool Mercury (26 April 1833)], 28 Oct 2002 [Mary Ann Flaxman] · IGI [Mary Ann Flaxman] · DNB [Mary Ann Flaxman] · E. Rideal, Mirror, mirror: self-portraits by women artists (2001) [exhibition catalogue, NPG, 24 Oct 2001 – 24 Feb 2002] · R. Walker, National Portrait Gallery: Regency portraits, 2 vols. (1985) · D. Foskett, Miniatures: dictionary and guide (1987) · www.npg.org.uk/live/mirrc5.asp, 28 Oct 2002 [Mary Ann Flaxman] · will, TNA: PRO, PROB 11/1720, sig. 17

Archives  

American School of Classical Studies, Athens, Gennadius Library, corresp. · Assay Office, Birmingham, corresp. · BL, corresp., Add. MSS 36652I 32491A, 37538B, 36540, fol. 50, 37309, fol. 220 · BL, sketches for casts of his monuments, Add. MS 39840 · BL, corresp., Add. MSS 36652, 39780–39792 · BL, notes on the history of sculpture, Add. MS 39790, fols. 104–b112 · BL, business books, Flaxman and executors, Add. MSS 39784A-CC · Bodl. Oxf., corresp., MSS Autog. D. 11 · Col. U., account book, special collection, D. 430 394-F. 61 · FM Cam., corresp. and literary papers · FM Cam., notebook 832/5 · FM Cam., notes and sketchbook, notebook 832/7 · FM Cam., notes on the decoration of St Paul's and other churches, and on classical architecture · FM Cam., MSS, journal in Italy (Florence and Rome) · Harvard U., corresp. · Hunt. L., corresp. · JRL, corresp., English MS 341 · Maine Historical Society, Portland, corresp. · Morgan L., corresp. · Museo Civico, Bassano, corresp., MS 5899-XII-1192 · NL Scot., corresp., MS 587, no. 1150; MS 590, no. 1742A; MS 685, fol. 20; MS 4947, fols. 114–16; MS 9819, fol. 104 · NYPL, corresp. · Swedenborg Society, London, corresp. · U. Edin., corresp., Laing, II, 641 and 426/170 · UCL, journal in Naples, notebook with lecture notes · UCL, notebook, drawings, and collection of plaster casts · UCL, journal and commonplace book · Yale U., corresp. · Yale U. CBA, Italian notebook |  Art Institute of Chicago, L. H. Gurley collection, corresp., Mrs Flaxman · BL, address to the president of the Royal Academy, Add. MS 33610S · BL, corresp., Mrs Flaxman, Add. MS 39782 · BL, journal in Italy, Mrs Flaxman, Add. MS 39787 · BL, journal in Italy, Mrs Flaxman, Add. MS 39790, fols. 147 ff. · BL, journal in Italy, Mrs Flaxman, Add. MS 39792A · BL, journal on the way to Rome, Add. MS 39786 · Cornwall RO, letters to John Hawkins · DWL, corresp. relating to H. Crabb-Robinson · DWL, Henry Crabb-Robinson diaries [typescript and manuscript] · DWL, Flaxman Gallery MSS · Glos. RO, corresp. with Sir Rowland Winn · Keele University, Wedgwood Archive, corresp. and receipts, MSS 1330.2–1342.2 · Keele University, Wedgwood Archive, corresp. and receipts, MSS 30186-2–30197-2 · Keele University, Wedgwood Archive, corresp. and receipts, MSS L. 204-1–L. 216-1 · Keele University, Wedgwood Archive, corresp., receipts, and lists, MSS L. 26272-I–L. 26273-1 · Keele University, Wedgwood Archive, Mosley collection, corresp. · Morgan L., corresp., Mrs Flaxman · RIBA, C. R. Cockerell diaries, drawings collection


Likenesses  

J. Flaxman, self-portrait, Wedgwood medallion, 1771, Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery · J. Flaxman, self-portrait, pen and wash drawing, 1778–9, Earls High School, Halesowen, Worcestershire · J. Flaxman, self-portrait, terracotta relief, 1778–9, V&A · J. Flaxman, self-portrait, pen, ink, and watercolour drawing, 1779, UCL · J. Flaxman, self-portrait, plaster relief, 1779, BM · W. M. Ottley, watercolour, c.1790, BM · J. Flaxman, self-portrait, plaster medallion, c.1790–1795, NPG · G. Head, oils, 1792, NPG · G. Romney, oils, 1795, NPG [see illus.] · G. Romney, oils, c.1795–1796, Yale U. CBA · G. Dance, drawing, 1796, RA · H. Howard, oils, c.1797, NPG · T. Cooley, pencil drawing, 1810, NPG · W. H. Lizars, pencil drawing, 1815, Scot. NPG · D. D'Angers, bronze medallion, c.1816, Musée des Beaux Arts, Angers, France · J. Jackson, oils, c.1819 · attrib. M. A. Flaxman, miniature, watercolour on ivory, c.1820 (Mary Ann Flaxman), NPG · W. Brockedon, chalk drawing, c.1824, Scot. NPG · J. Atkinson, watercolour drawing, 1826, NPG · E. H. Baily, marble bust, 1826, RA · J. A. D. Ingres, pen-and-pencil drawing, in or before 1827 (Homère déifié), Musée Ingres, Montauban · W. Brockedon, pencil and chalk drawing, 1830–38, NPG · H. Weekes, marble facade, 1873–4, Burlington House, London · J. Flaxman, self-portrait, plaster medallion, Royal Scot. Acad., Edinburgh · J. Flaxman, wax portrait (aged four; Mary Ann Flaxman), V&A · O. Humphry, crayon drawing, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool · J. Jackson, oils, Althorp, Northamptonshire · W. M. Ottley, pen and wash drawing, BM · C. C. Vogel, drawing, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Dresden, Germany · H. Weekes, statue, Tate collection · engraving, repro. in Cunningham, Lives, frontispiece · oils, City Art Gallery, York

Wealth at death  

£1657 2s. 4d.—incl. studio contents: 30 Jan 1820, Symmons, Flaxman and Europe, 195; will, TNA: PRO, PROB 11/1720, sig. 17