Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Flaxman, John
FLAXMAN, JOHN (1756–1826), sculptor and draughtsman, was born at York on 6 July 1755. According to a family tradition four brothers Flaxman, coming from Norfolk, had fought against the king at Naseby, and the youngest of the four, named John, had settled as a farmer and carrier in Buckinghamshire. From him was descended another John, who towards the middle of the eighteenth century carried on, partly in London and partly in the provinces, the trade of a maker and seller of plaster casts. He had a good connection among artists, and was employed as a modeller by some of the chief sculptors of the day, including Boubilliac and Scheemakers. He and his wife (whose maiden name was Lee) were on business at York at the time when their second son, the subject of the present article, was born. Six months afterwards the family returned to London, and the childhood of the sculptor was spent almost entirely in his father's shop at the sign of the Golden Head, New Street, Covent Garden. As an infant he was rickety and ill-shapen, could only move with crutches, and was not expected to live; but an alert and stubborn spirit animated the puny frame, and from about his tenth year his health began to mend. His mother, a woman of little thrift, dying about the same time, his father took a second wife, of whom we know nothing except that her maiden name was Gordon, and that she proved a kind and careful stepmother. Except for a brief interval of schooling, under a master whose cruelty he never forgot, the young John Flaxman was kept at home. Unfitted for the play or the exercises of his age, he found in his father's stock-in-trade all the occupation and all the pastime for which he cared. Customers, among whom were men of note in arts and literature, soon began to take an interest in the sickly lad whom they found always busy drawing or modelling behind the counter, or trying to teach himself the classic fables and Latin. Among the earliest of those who noticed and encouraged his talents were the painter Romney and a lettered and amiable clergyman named Mathew; whose wife, herself a woman of culture, used to invite the boy to her house, and read out translations of the ancient poets while he made sketches to such passages as struck his fancy. His earliest commission was from a friend of the Mathews, Mr. Crutchley of Sunninghill Park, for a set of six classical drawings of this kind. He became a precocious exhibitor and prize-winner, gaining at twelve the first prize of the Society of Arts for a medal, and another similar prize at fifteen. In 1767, and for two years following, he was a contributor to the exhibitions of the Free Society of Artists in Pall Mall; and to those of the Royal Academy from the second year of their foundation, 1770. In this year he became a student at the Academy schools, and presently carried off the silver medal. But when it came to the competition for the gold medal in 1772, the successful youth received a check, the president and council awarding the prize to a rival, Thomas Engleheart [q. v.], who did nothing afterwards to justify the choice. This reverse is said to have had a salutary effect on the character of the young Flaxman, in whose composition a certain degree of dogmatism and self-sufficiency went together with many amiable qualities of kindness, simplicity, enthusiasm, generosity, and piety. Some experience of the former qualities, naturally most conspicuous in early youth, caused Thomas Wedgwood to write of him in 1775, `It is but a few years since he was a most supreme coxcomb.' By the time these words were written Wedgwood's partner, Thomas Bentley [q. v.], who had already had some business relations with the elder Flaxman, had secured the services of his second son as a designer for the cameo wares of their firm, then freshly in fashion. Wedgwood himself quickly learnt to rate the talents of the young coxcomb at their true value, and to call him `the genius of sculpture.' It was by designing and preparing wax models for classical friezes and portrait medallions in Wedgwood ware that Flaxman chiefly maintained himself during the first part of his career.
That career falls into three main divisions: first, his early life in London, brought to a close in 1787 by his departure for Rome; next, the period of his residence in Italy, from his thirty-second to his thirty-ninth year (1787-94): and, lastly, his second residence in London, as an artist of acknowledged fame and standing, from 1794 until his death in 1826.
In 1775, the year in which young Flaxman began to be regularly employed by the Wedgwoods, his family, and he with it, moved from New Street, Covent Garden, to a larger shop, No. 420 Strand. He had been for four years a frequent exhibitor at the Royal Academy (1770, a wax model of Neptune; 1771, four portrait models in wax; 1772, figure of a child in wax, portrait bust in terra-cotta, figure of History; 1773, a figure of the Grecian Comedy, a Vestal in bas-relief); and continued to contribute somewhat more irregularly during the next twelve years. In 1780 he showed his first design for a monument to be erected in a church, that, namely, in honour Chatterton for St. Mary Redcliffe at Bristol; this was followed 1784 by one in memory of Mrs. Morley for Gloucester Cathedral, and in 1785 by another, for Chichester, in memory of the Rev. Thomas and Mrs. Margaret Ball. It was by works of this class that Flaxman came in due time to earn the best part both of his livelihood and his fame. Meantime his incessant industry (for he is described as continually reading or drawing when not actually at work for his employers) did not prevent him from increasing the circle of his acquaintance. His chosen companions of his own age and calling were Thomas Stothard and William Blake. For a time these three young artists used to frequent together the drawing-room of Mrs. Mathew in Rathbone Place, which was the resort of a lettered society, including such models of female accomplishment and decorum as Mrs. Montague, Mrs. Barbauld, and Mrs. Chapone. There was that about Flaxman already, and still more as time went on, which secured him personal liking and respect wherever he went. His appearance was singular, for though his frame had acquired a wiry tenacity which enabled him to bear much fatigue, yet he looked feeble, and was high-shouldered almost to deformity, with a head somewhat too large for his body, and a sidelong gait in walking. His mouth and set of jaw had something of plebeian stubbornness, corresponding to his inflexible rigidity of opinion on certain subjects; but the eyes were fine and full of enthusiasm, the forehead noble, the smile quaint and winning, and in youth his features were set off to advantage by a crop of long brown hair curling to his shoulders. Such as he was, Flaxman won the affections of a girl about his own age, Ann Denman, who proved to him the best of wives. She shared all his studies and interests, was enthusiastic, sensible, somewhat sententious, according to the Johnsonian fashion of the age, in speech, the pleasantest and most frugal of housekeepers, his inseparable companion, helpmate, and 'dictionary' (to use his own expression). The pair were married in 1782, and went to live in a very small house, No. 27 Wardour Street; where Flaxman was elected to the parochial office of collector of the watchrate. Shortly afterwards the sculptor was made known by Romney to his friend William Hayley [q. v.], the Sussex squire and poet. This maudlin writer, but genial and generous man, conceived a warm attachment both for Flaxman and his wife. The young couple spent the summer holidays of several years following their marriage at Hayley's country house at Eartham in the South Downs; and his patronage, equally assiduous and delicate, was of great use to Flaxman, particularly in procuring him commissions for monumental works in the neighbouring cathedral of Chichester.
After five years of married life Flaxman determined to start on a journey to Rome, on which his heart had long been set. Wedgwood helped him both with recommendations and with a money advance for services to be rendered in superintending the work of the designers and modellers employed for the firm in Italy. The young couple set out in August 1787, and took up their quarters at Rome in the Via Felice. They meant to stay abroad only two years, but stayed seven. Their residence at Rome was varied with summer trips to other parts of Italy, the records of some of which are preserved in the artist's extant sketch-books and journals. These prove him to have been a zealous and intelligent student, not only of the remains of classic art, to which by sympathy and vocation he was more especially attracted, but also of the works, then generally despised, of the Gothic and early Renaissance ages in Italy. At Rome he soon attracted the notice of the resident and travelling English dilettanti. A Mr. Knight, of Portland Place, for whom he had already executed a figure of Alexander, and just before leaving England a Venus and Cupid, ordered from him a reduced copy of the Borghese vase (these works are now at Wolverley Hall, Worcestershire); `Anastasius' Hope of Deepdene, a group of 'Cephalus and Aurora;' the notorious Frederick Hervey, earl of Bristol and bishop of Derry, one on a great scale of the `Fury of Athamas.' Flaxman's relations with the last-named patron and his agent were a source of great annoyance to him; the price fixed was 600l.; the instalments were unpunctually doled out; the work remained long on hand, and when completed left the sculptor heavily out of pocket (the group is now at Ickworth, Bury St. Edmunds). Flaxman also spent much time on his own account on an attempt, not very successful, to restore and complete as a group the famous ancient fragment at the Vatican known as the Belvedere torso; the cast of this group he in later life destroyed. He was further engaged while at Rome in preparing designs for a monument in relief to the poet Collins for Chichester Cathedral, and for one in the round to Lord Mansfield for Westminster Abbey. On behalf of the Wedgwoods he found much to employ him at first, less afterwards. The occupation which brought him most repute, though at first slender enough profit, during his stay at Rome was not that of a sculptor or modeller, but that of a designer of illustrations to the poets. Mrs. Hare Naylor (born Georgiana Shipley, and mother of the distinguished brothers, Francis, Augustus, and Julius Hare [q. v.]) gave him the commission for the designs to the `Iliad' and `Odyssey,' seventy-three drawings in all at fifteen shillings each. These drawings no sooner began to be shown about among artistic circles at Rome than they aroused the greatest enthusiasm. Mr. Hope followed suit with a commission for similar designs for Dante; Lady Spencer with one for a set of Æschylus subjects (at a guinea each). All four series were successively handed over to Piroli to be engraved, and the first copies of each were printed at Rome in 1793; the plates were then shipped to England, for home publication, and those for the `Odyssey' getting lost on the voyage, the designs were re-engraved for Flaxman by his friend Blake. The engraved versions of the designs fall far short of the originals, neither Piroli nor Blake (in this his first attempt) having at all succeeded in rendering with the burin the delicacy and expressiveness of Flaxman's pen work.
In an age much given to the cultivation of classic art and virtù, Flaxman, even as a lad, with no models before him except the plaster casts of his father's shop, had shown in his drawings and models an instinct beyond that of any of his contemporaries for the true qualities of Greek design. He had the secret, almost lost to modern art, of combining ideal grace of form and rhythmical composition of lines with spontaneousness and truth of pose and gesture, and the unaffected look of life. Sketching constantly, as was his habit, with pen and pencil the leading lines and masses of every scene and every action of daily humanity that caught his attention within doors or without, and at the same time studying ardently, since his arrival in Italy, the works of Greek design in ancient vases and bas-reliefs, he had greatly strengthened his natural gifts both for linear design and the expression of life and action. The best of the outlines to the Greek poets and Dante—and they are those which represent subjects of grace and gentleness, rather than subjects of violence or terror—are worthy of all the praise they have won. Their success was immediate and universal Fuseli, whose foible was certainly not diffidence, at once declared himself outdone as a designer. Canova, the prince of Italian sculptors, was generous in recognising those qualities in Flaxman which he lacked himself, and praised his work without stint. Schlegel, the chief of German critics, extolled it a few years later more vehemently still. French taste, then running towards ancient ideals, was equally favourable, and from within a few years of the publication of these designs until our own time the name of Flaxman has been perhaps more known and honoured abroad than that of any other English artist.
Flaxman's last occupation in Italy was that of getting packed and despatched the collection of casts from the antique which Romney had commissioned him to form, intending to place it for the use of students in his great painting room at Hampstead. The sculptor and his wife left Italy in the summer of 1794, and travelled to England without any such molestation as they apprehended from the disturbed state of the continent. They established themselves in a house in Buckingham Street, Fitzroy Square, where Flaxman continued to live until his death. A son of Hayley's, who showed some talent for art, was placed with him as a pupil, but within a few years died of a decline, and is commemorated by a small memorial relief, in Flaxman's best manner, in Eartham Church. From the date of his return, commissions for memorial sculptures, both public and private, brought Flaxman employment and reward more than sufficient for his modest desires and frugal way of living. In the most lucrative branch of his profession, the production of ordinary busts and portrait statues, he found comparatively little employment, the strength of his art not lying in individuality of likeness and character. Among the best of his emblematic groups in memory of private persons, executed during the years following his return from Rome, were those to Miss Emily Mawley, for Chertsey Church (model exhibited 1797); to Miss Lushington, for Lewisham; to Miss Cromwell, for Chichester, 1800; and to Mrs. Knight, for Milton Church, Cambridge, 1802. Among public monuments he exhibited in 1796 the model of that to Lord Mansfield for Westminster Abbey, and in 1798 of that to Corsican Paoli for the same place. Through Mrs. Hare Naylor he obtained the commission for a monument to Sir William Jones (her brother-in-law) for St. Mary's, Oxford (the model exhibited 1797; the finished portrait statue, 1801), and afterwards executed another for University College, Oxford. These commissions led the way to an Indian connection, and Flaxman afterwards carried out several monumental works for the East India Company and one for the rajah of Tanjore. In 1800 he showed a design for a monument to a Captain Dundas, and in 1802 that for the monument of Captain Montagu in Westminster Abbey. In the meantime he had in 1797 been elected an associate of the Royal Academy, and a full member in 1800, in which year was exhibited his diploma work, a marble relief of ‘Apollo and Marpessa.’
There remain evidences of Flaxman's industry in other forms during these years. It was his yearly habit to give his wife on her birthday a drawing of their friend Stothard. In 1796 he gave her instead, with a charming dedication, a set of forty outline drawings of his own in illustration of a little allegorical poem he had written in blank verse, called ‘The Knight of the Blazing Cross’ (this volume is now in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge). In 1797 he published in the ‘Gentleman's Magazine’ a letter to the president and council of the Royal Academy, deprecating, with more point and vigour of style than are shown in any other of his writings, the scheme of the French government for ransacking Italy of its art treasures and bringing them to Paris. The progress of the war with France fired his patriotism, and in 1800 he addressed a pamphlet to the committee then considering the proposal to erect a great naval pillar in honour of British arms. Flaxman urged in opposition the erection of a colossal statue of Britannia triumphant, two hundred feet high, on Greenwich Hill. The next year he exhibited his sketch model for such a monument, and was somewhat wounded at the indifference with which his project was received. About the same time he published another letter to the president and council of the Royal Academy on the encouragement of the arts in England. In 1802 the act of rapine against which he pleaded five years before had been accomplished, and the peace of Amiens brought all Europe to Paris to gaze on the spoils of Italy there assembled. Flaxman, notwithstanding his disapproval, went too, but stiffly declined all interchange of courtesies with the French artists and others who had been instrumental in the spoliation.
After 1802 the tenor of Flaxman's life continued with little change until 1810, when he was appointed to the newly created post of professor of sculpture in the academy. Not only his fame as an artist, but particularly his assiduity and popularity as a teacher in the academy schools, recommended him to this post. Simplicity and earnestness of manner are said to have been his chief characteristics as a lecturer. ‘The Rev. John Flaxman’ he was once styled by the obstreperous Fuseli in the act of leaving a jovial party to go and hear him. His lectures in their published form show no power of style, and not much of order or arrangement, and on points of scholarship and archæology are now quite without authority; they are at the same time distinguished for sound sense and native insight into the principles and virtues alike of Greek and Gothic art. Among the chief works of sculpture which occupied Flaxman in the years preceding and following his appointment as academy professor were the beautiful and elaborate monument in relief for the Baring family in Micheldever Church, Hampshire, of which the various parts were exhibited at intervals between 1805 and 1811; the monument, only less rich, for the Yarborough family at Campsall Church, Yorkshire; a model for a monument to Sir Joshua Reynolds in St. Paul's (1807); one for a monument to Josiah Webbe for India (1810); monuments to Captains Walker and Beckett in Leeds Church (1811); a monument to Lord Cornwallis for Prince of Wales' Island (1812); one in honour of Sir J. Moore for Glasgow (1813); one to General Simcoe, and one to a Mr. Bosanquet for Leyton Church (1814). Since 1793 he had published no drawings in illustration of the poets except three for an edition, undertaken by Hayley, of Cowper's translations into English of the Latin poems of Milton (published 1810). Other sets of drawings made but not published about this time were one for the `Pilgrim's Progress' and one to illustrate a Chinese tale in verse, called `The Casket,' which he wrote (1812) to amuse his womankind. In 1817 he brought out the outlines to Hesiod, which are both the best in themselves of his designs to the Greek poets, and much the best rendered by the engraver, in this instance again Blake. For the next few years classical and decorative subjects in various forms began to occupy a larger share than usual of his time, side by side with monumental sculpture for churches. In the same year (1817) he designed a tripod to be executed by the goldsmiths Rundell and Bridge, and presented to John Kemble on his taking leave of the stage; and in 1818, on a commission from the same goldsmiths, set to work on the drawings and models for a shield of Achilles, to be executed in relief according to the description in the 18th book of the `Iliad.' This task gave him much labour and much pleasure, and in the result added considerably to his fame; though nothing, as we now know, could be more unlike the art of the Homeric age than Flaxman's suave and flowing work, which resembles a number of his happiest outline designs worked into a single ring-shaped composition. In 1820 Flaxman was engaged on a pedimental group in marble of `Peace, Liberty, and Plenty' for the Duke of Bedford's new sculpture gallery at Woburn. A group of `Maternal Love' for the monument to Mrs. Fitzharris (1817); two reliefs of `Faith' and 'Charity' for the monument of Lady Spencer, exhibited in 1819; and one of `Religious Instruction' in 1820, for a monument to the Rev. John Clowes at St. John's Church, Manchester, show that the artist had at the same time not broken off his usual labour on pious memorials for the dead, and symbols of Christian hope and consolation. His literary industry at the same time is shown by several articles on art and archæology contributed to Rees's `Encyclopædia ' (published 1819-20).
Flaxman's home life in Buckingham Street during these years was one of great contentment. He was childless, but his half-sister, Mary Ann Flaxman, who was thirteen years younger than himself, and his wife's sister, Maria Denman, had joined his household. He went little into society, but kept up an unpretending hospitality in his own home. Crabb Robinson, who was first acquainted with Flaxman in 1810, has borne witness to the spirit of pleasantness which reigned there; to the dignity and simnlicity of Flaxman's character, the charm and playfulness of his ordinary conversation, and the goodness of heart which made him beloved alike by pupils, servants, models, and the poor folk and children of the neighbourhood, among whom he went habitually armed with a sketch-book to note down their actions and groupings, and a pocketful of coppers to relieve their distress. Similar testimonies of affectionate and admiring regard have been left by others, especially by E. H. Baily the sculptor, who was his pupil from 1807 to 1814; by Watson the sculptor; and by Allan Cunningham, who only knew him in the last years of his life. In conduct Flaxman seems to have been faultlessly kind, upright, and generous, and in conversation sweetness itself; except on the subject of religion, in which he held stiffly to certain private opinions, compounded partly of puritan orthodoxy and partly of Sweden-borgian mysticism. The mystical `Book of Enoch' supplied many subjects to his pencil, and he had a sympathy with religious seers and enthusiasts. But he was not haunted, like Blake, by visions more real to him than reality; and when Sharp, the engraver, came to him with a message from the prophet Brothers, declaring that he must accompany them in leading back the Jews to Jerusalem, and undertake the office of architect to the Temple, he was able to put by the offer with a smile and speak of it humorously afterwards.
In 1820 Mrs. Flaxman, who had made a good recovery from a stroke of paralysis six years before, died on 6 Feb. The blow to Flaxman was very great. His health and spirits were never the same again, though he did not suffer the shock to diminish or interrupt his industry. The next year he finished and exhibited the group of `Michael and Satan,' for Lord Egremont, in marble, and in 1824 a `Pastoral Apollo ' for the same patron. Both are now at Petworth. In 1822 he gave an address at the Royal Academy on the occasion of the death of Canova, and in 1823 received a visit from his old admirer, Schlegel. He was at work about the same time on statuettes of Raphael and Michael Angelo, on small figures of Cupid and Psyche, on designs for a statue of Burns, and for one of John Kemble for Westminster Abbey, and on sketches for friezes for the external decoration of Buckingham Palace, then uncompleted. In his seventy-second year he lived still surrounded by honour and affection, and as busy almost as ever, though visibly failing in strength; when, on 3 Dec. 1826, he caught a cold in church, which turned quickly to inflammation. On the morning of the the 7th he died. He was buried, with no public mourning, in the church of St. Giles-in-the-Fields.
The most important and complete monumental works of Flaxman, including those above mentioned and others, are to be found in Westminster Abbty, in St. Paul's, at Glasgow, and in Calcutta; his most ambitious classical and decorative groups and figures at Petworth, Ickworth, Woburn, Deepdene, and Wolverley Hall. But neither of these classes of work represent him at his best. His occupation on wax models for Wedgwood had accustomed him in youth to work chiefly on a minute scale; and on a large scale he never learnt to design or execute with complete mastery. Many of the shortcomings of his heroic monuments are due to the fact of his having used half-sized, or even smaller, instead of full-sized models in their preparation. They are, moreover, often marred by inexpressiveness and lack of thoroughness in the treatment of the marble; Flaxman not having been himself very skilful with the chisel, and having been content, except in a few instances (as the 'Fury of Athamas' and the Academy relief of 'Apollo and Marpessa,' which he is said to have finished in great part with his own hand), with the empty mechanical polish which the Italian workmen of the time imitated from the Roman imitations of Greek originals. His real genius appears far better in the memorial reliefs in honour of the private dead, which are to be found in so many churches throughout England—in Chichester Cathedral no less than eight, in the cathedrals of Winchester and Gloucester, in the churches of Leeds, Manchester, Campsall, Tewkesbury, Ledbury, Michaldever, Heston, Chertney, Cookham, Lewisham, Beckenham, Leyton, Milton, and many more. For this class of work his favourite form of design was one of symbolic figures or groups in relief, embodying some simple theme of sorrow or consolation, a beatitude, or a text from the Lord's Prayer. Such motives lose all triteness in his hands, and are distinguished by a unique combination of typical classic grace with heart felt humanity and domestic pathos. But of these, too, the execution in marble is often not equal to the beauty of the motive, and in many cases they can be studied almost batter in the collection of casts from the clay models preserved in the Flaxman Hall at University College than in the marbles themselves. Perhaps the most entirely satisfactory class of Flaxman's works is to be found, not among his sculptures, but his drawings and sketches and pen outline,pan and wash, or pencil. These are very numerous, and include ideas and essays for almost all his extant or projected works, whether in sculpture or outline illustrations, as well as many hundred studies and motives from life or fancy not afterwards used. Slight as they commonly are, abstract and generalised as is their treatment of anatomical forms, they stand alone by the peculiar quality of their beauty; expressing, in lines of a charm equal to, and partly caught from, that of antique vase-painting and bas-reliefs, the inventions and observations of a singularly gifted, pure, lofty, and tender spirit. The best public collections of them are in the British Museum, the South Kensington Museum, in the Flaxman Hall at University College, and the Fitz-william Museum, Cambridge; many more remain in private hands.
John Flaxman's elder brother, William Flaxman (1753?-1795?), was also a modeller and exhibitor. He contributed to the exhibition of the Free Society of Artists in 1768, and to those of the Academy at intervals between 1781 (when he sent a portrait of John Flaxman in wax) and 1793. He is said to have been distinguished as a carver in wood. No details of his life have been preserved in any published memoir or correspondence of his brother.
Of more note as an artist, and more closely associated with the sculptor's career, was his half-sister, Mary Ann Flaxman (1768-1833). She lived as governess in the family of the Hare Naylors for several years, first in Italy and afterwards at Weimar; and from 1810 was an inmate of John Flaxman's house at Buckingham Street until his death. 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 Hayley's 'Triumphs of Temper,' engraved by Blake, and published in 1803. Her contributions to the Royal Academy occur at intervals between 1780 and 1819, and consist chiefly of designs in illustration of poetry and romance.