FLAXMAN, JOHN (1755-1826), English sculptor and draughtsman, was born on the 6th of July 1755, during a temporary residence of his parents at York. The name John was hereditary in the family, having been borne by his father after a forefather who, according to the family tradition, had fought on the side of parliament at Naseby, and afterwards settled as a carrier or farmer, or both, in Buckinghamshire. John Flaxman, the father of the sculptor, carried on with repute the trade of 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 See, and John was their second son. Within six months of his birth the family returned to London, and in his father's back shop he spent an ailing childhood. His figure was high-shouldered and weakly, the head very large for the body. His mother having died about his tenth year, his father took a second wife, of whom all we know is that her maiden name was Gordon, and that she proved a thrifty housekeeper and kind stepmother. Of regular schooling the boy must have had some, since he is reputed as having remembered in after life the tyranny of some pedagogue of his youth; but his principal education he picked up for himself at home. He early took delight in drawing and modelling from his father's stock-in-trade, and early endeavoured to understand those counterfeits of classic art by the light of translations from classic literature.
Customers of his father took a fancy to the child, and helped him with books, advice, and presently with commissions. The two special encouragers of his youth were the painter Romney, and a cultivated clergyman, Mr Mathew, with his wife, in whose house in Rathbone Place the young Flaxman used to meet the best "blue-stocking" society of those days, and, among associates of his own age, the artists Blake and Stothard, who became his closest friends. Before this he had begun to work with precocious success in clay as well as in pencil. At twelve years old he won the first prize of the Society of Arts for a medal, and became a public exhibitor in the gallery of the Free Society of Artists; at fifteen he won a second prize from the Society of Arts and began to exhibit in the Royal Academy, then in the second year of its existence. In the same year, 1770, he entered as an Academy student and won the silver medal. But all these successes were followed by a discomfiture. In the competition for the gold medal of the Academy in 1772, Flaxman, who had made sure of victory, was defeated, the prize being adjudged by the president, Sir Joshua Reynolds, to another competitor named Engleheart. But this reverse proved no discouragement, and indeed seemed to have had a wholesome effect in curing the successful lad of a tendency to conceit and self-sufficiency which made Thomas Wedgwood say of him in 1775: "It is but a few years since he was a most supreme coxcomb."
He continued to ply his art diligently, 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 (1770); four portrait models in wax (1771); a terracotta bust, a wax figure of a child, a figure of History (1772); 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. The means of such a livelihood, however, presented themselves in his twentieth year, when he first received employment from Josiah Wedgwood and his partner Bentley, as a modeller of classic and domestic friezes, plaques, ornamental vessels and medallion portraits, in those varieties of "jasper" and "basalt" ware which earned in their day so great a reputation for the manufacturers who had conceived and perfected the invention. In the same year, 1775, John Flaxman the elder moved from New Street, Covent Garden, to a more commodious house in the Strand (No. 420). For twelve years, from his twentieth to his thirty-second (1775-1787), Flaxman subsisted chiefly by his work for the firm of Wedgwood. It may be urged, of the minute refinements of figure outline and modelling which these manufacturers aimed at in their ware, that they were not the qualities best suited to such a material; or it may be regretted that the gifts of an artist like Flaxman should have been spent so long upon such a minor and half-mechanical art of household decoration; but the beauty of the product it would be idle to deny, or the value of the training which the sculptor by this practice acquired in the delicacies and severities of modelling in low relief and on a minute scale.
By 1780 Flaxman 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 (1780), 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, and in them the finest qualities of his art are represented. The best are admirable for pathos and simplicity, and for the alliance of a truly Greek instinct for rhythmical design and composition with that spirit of domestic tenderness and innocence which is one of the secrets of the modern soul.
In 1782, being twenty-seven years old, Flaxman was married to Anne Denman, and had in her the best of helpmates until almost his life's end. She was a woman of attainments in letters and to some extent in art, and the devoted companion of her husband's fortunes and of his travels. They set up house at first in Wardour Street, and lived an industrious life, spending their summer holidays once and again in the house of the hospitable poet Hayley, at Eartham in Sussex. After five years, in 1787, they found themselves with means enough to travel, and set out for Rome, where they took up their quarters in the Via Felice. Records more numerous and more consecutive of Flaxman's residence in Italy exist in the shape of drawings and studies than in the shape of correspondence. He soon ceased modelling himself for Wedgwood, but continued to direct the work of 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, a commission attended in the sequel with circumstances of infinite trouble and annoyance, from the notorious Comte-Evêque, Frederick Hervey, earl of Bristol and bishop of Derry. He did not, as things fell out, return until the summer of 1794, after an absence of seven years, - having in the meantime executed another ideal commission (a "Cephalus and Aurora") for Mr Hope, and having sent home models for several sepulchral monuments, including 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 not his work in sculpture proper, but those outline designs to the poets, in which he showed not only to what purpose he had made his own the principles of ancient design in vase-paintings and bas-reliefs, but also by what a natural affinity, better than all mere learning, he was bound 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 qualities of Flaxman's own lines.
During their homeward journey the Flaxmans travelled through central and northern Italy. On their return they took a house, which they never afterwards left, in Buckingham Street, Fitzroy Square. Immediately afterwards we find the sculptor publishing a spirited protest against the scheme already entertained by the Directory, and carried out five years later by Napoleon, of equipping at Paris a vast central museum of art with the spoils of conquered Europe.
The record of Flaxman's life is henceforth an uneventful record of private affection and contentment, and of happy and tenacious industry, with reward not brilliant but sufficient, and repute not loud but loudest in the mouths of those whose praise was best worth having - Canova, Schlegel, Fuseli. He took for pupil a son of Hayley's, who presently afterwards sickened and died. In 1797 he was made an associate of the Royal Academy. 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 constantly 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]; and these pious labours he would vary from time to time with a classical piece like those of his earliest predilection. 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 honour of the naval victories of his country. In 1800 he was elected full Academician. During the peace of Amiens he went to Paris to see the despoiled treasures collected there, but bore himself according to the spirit of protest that was in him. The next event which makes any mark in his life is his appointment to a chair specially created for him by the Royal Academy - the chair of Sculpture: this took place in 1810. We have ample evidence of his thoroughness and judiciousness as a teacher in the Academy schools, and his professorial lectures have been often reprinted. 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. The most important works that occupied Flaxman in the years next 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, which is the next richest; 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). At this time the antiquarian world was much occupied with the vexed question of the merits of the Elgin marbles, and Flaxman was one of those whose evidence before the parliamentary commission had most weight in favour of the purchase which was ultimately effected in 1816.
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 (1810). Other sets of outline illustrations drawn about the same time, but not published, were one to the Pilgrim's Progress, and one to a Chinese tale in verse, called "The Casket," which he wrote to amuse his womenkind. 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. Immediately afterwards he was much engaged designing for the goldsmiths - a testimonial cup in honour of John Kemble, and following 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 (1819-1820).
In 1820 Mrs Flaxman died, after a first warning from paralysis six years earlier. Her younger sister, Maria Denman, and the sculptor's own sister,, Maria Flaxman, remained in his house, and his industry was scarcely at all relaxed. In 1822 he delivered at the Academy a lecture in memory of his old friend and generous fellow-craftsman, Canova, then lately dead; in 1823 he received from A.W. von Schlegel a visit of which that writer has left us the record. From an illness occurring soon after this he recovered sufficiently to resume both work and exhibition, but on the 3rd of December 1826 he caught cold in church, and died four days later, in his seventy-second year. Among a few intimate associates, he left a memory singularly dear; having been in companionship, although susceptible and obstinate when his religious creed - a devout Christianity with Swedenborgian admixtures - was crossed or slighted, yet in other things genial and sweet-tempered beyond most men, full of modesty and playfulness and withal of a homely dignity, a true friend and a kind master, a pure and blameless spirit.
Posterity will doubt whether it was the fault of Flaxman or of his age, which in England offered neither training nor much encouragement to a sculptor, that he is weakest when he is most ambitious, and most inspired when he makes the least effort; but so it is. Not merely does he fail when he seeks to illustrate the intensity of Dante, or to rival the tumultuousness of Michelangelo - to be intense or tumultuous he was never made; but he fails, it may almost be said, in proportion as his work is elaborate and far carried, and succeeds in proportion as it is partial and suggestive. Of his completed ideal sculptures, the "St Michael" at Petworth is the best, and is indeed admirably composed from all points of view; but it lacks fire and force, and it lacks 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 the Italian workmen in his employ, and was content with the smooth mechanical finish which they imitated from the Roman imitations (themselves often reworked at the Renaissance) 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 infelicitous in the arrangement, and something empty and unsatisfactory in the surface execution. But when we come to his simple monuments in relief, in these we find almost always a far finer quality. The truth is that he did not thoroughly understand composition on the great scale and in the round, but he thoroughly understood relief, and found scope in it for his remarkable gifts of harmonious design, and tender, 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 College And the same is true of his happiest efforts in the classical and poetical vein, like the well-known relief of "Pandora conveyed to Earth by Mercury." Nay, going farther back still among the rudiments and first conceptions of his art, 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 & Albert Museum; many others are dispersed in public and private cabinets. Every one knows the excellence of the engraved designs to Homer, Dante, Aeschylus and Hesiod, in all cases save when the designer aims at that which he cannot hit, the terrible or the grotesque. To know Flaxman at his best it is necessary to be acquainted not only with the original studies for such designs as these (which, with the exception of the Hesiod series, are far finer than the engravings), but still more with those almost innumerable studies from real life which he was continually producing with pen, tint or pencil. These are the most delightful and suggestive sculptor's notes in existence; in them it was his habit to set down the leading and expressive lines, and generally no more, of every group that struck his fancy. There are groups of Italy and London, groups of the parlour and the nursery, of the street, the garden and the gutter; and of each group the artist knows how to seize at once the structural and the spiritual secret, expressing happily the value and suggestiveness, for his art of sculpture, of the contacts, intervals, interlacements and balancings of the various figures in any given group, and not less happily the charm of the affections which link the figures together and inspire their gestures.
The materials for the life of Flaxman are scattered in various biographical and other publications; the principal are the following: - An anonymous sketch in the European Magazine for 1823; an anonymous "Brief Memoir," prefixed to Flaxman's Lectures (ed. 1829, and reprinted in subsequent editions); the chapter in Allan Cunningham's Lives of the Most Eminent British Painters, etc., vol. iii.; notices in the Life of Nollekens, by John Thomas Smith; in the Life of Josiah Wedgwood, by Miss G. Meteyard (London, 1865); in the Diaries and Reminiscences of H. Crabbe Robinson (London, 1869), the latter an authority of great importance; in the Lives of Stothard, by Mrs Bray, of Constable, by Leslie, of Watson, by Dr Lonsdale, and of Blake, by Messrs Gilchrist and Rossetti; a series of illustrated essays, principally on the monumental sculpture of Flaxman, in the Art Journal for 1867 and 1868, by Mr G.F. Teniswood; Essays in English Art, by Frederick Wedmore; The Drawings of Flaxman, in 32 plates, with Descriptions, and an Introductory Essay on the Life and Genius of Flaxman, by Sidney Colvin (London, 1876); and the article "Flaxman" in the Dictionary of National Biography.
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)