1902 Encyclopedia > John Flaxman

John Flaxman
English sculptor

JOHN FLAXMAN, (1755-1826), was the greatest sculptor, or, if that title may be disputed on account of certain technical shortcomings in his work, at any rate the greatest designer of sculpture, that England has produced ; and as a representative of the Greek spirit in modern art his name stands among the foremost, not of England merely, but of the world.

He was born on the 6th of July 1755. His name, John, was hereditary in the family, having been borne by his father after a forefather who, according to the family tradi-tion, had fought on the side of parliament at Naseby, and afterwards settled as a carrier or farmer, or both, in Buckinghamshire. John Flaxman the elder carried on with repute the trade of a moulder and seller of plaster casts in New Street, Covent Garden, London. Our sculp-tor was the second son of his parents, and was born while they were temporarily living at York. Within six months of his birth they returned to London, and in his father's back shop he spent an ailing childhood, in the course of which his life was once at least despaired of. His figure was high-shouldered and weakly, with the head very large for the body. His father by and by removed to a more commodious house in the Strand, and, his first wife dying, married a second, who proved a thrifty housekeeper and gentle 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 clergy-man, Mr Mathew, in whose house in Rathbone Place the young Flaxman used to meet the lettered society of those days, and, among associates of his own age, the artists Blake and Stothard. Before this he had begun to work with success in clay as well as in pencil. At eleven years old, and again at thirteen, he won prizes from the Society of Arts. At twelve he became a public exhibitor in the gallery of the Free Society of Artists, and at fifteen in that of the Royal Academy, then in the second year of its ex-istence. 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, Flaxman, who had made quite 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 discourage-ment, and the young Flaxman continued to ply his art diligently, both as a student in the schools and as an ex-hibitor in the galleries of the Academy, occasionally also attempting diversions into the sister art of painting. Before long 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—and it was work of this class that he at first almost exclusively exhibited—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 prodigious a reputation for the manu-facturers who had conceived and perfected the invention, and of which the examples, dispersed and disregarded during the first fifty years of this century, have now again returned iuto favour among the curious, and are disputed in sale-rooms at prices greater than they fetched in the first fever of the fashion. 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 extreme 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 one of the greatest figure designers who ever lived should have been employed 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, the very utmost delicacies and severities, of modelling in low relief and on a minute scale. By 1780 Flaxman had begun to earn something in another, and, so to speak, a more legitimate branch of his profession. This was in 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 Bedcliffe at Bristol, of Mrs Morley in Gloucester Cathedral, and of a widow comforted by an angel, in the cathedral at Chichester. 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 all the finest qualities of his art are represented. The best are quite unsurpass-able for pathos, for simplicity, for an instinct of composition as just, pure, and lovely as that of the Greeks themselves, and for the alliance with those harmonious lines and groupings of the ancients of that spirit of domestic tender-ness and innocence which is the secret, and the holiest secret, 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 Borne. Becords 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-Eveque, 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 funeral monuments, including that of the poet Collins in Chichester Cathedral. But what gained for Flaxman in this interval an immense 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 j designs for the Iliad and Odyssey were commissioned by ! Mrs Hare Naylor ; those for Dante by Mr Hope ; those for Jischylus by Lady Spencer. 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 a sculptor exhibiting the model of a large monument in the round, that of Lord Mansfield, now in Westminster Abbey, and at the same time 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, of happy and tenacious industry; with reward not brilliant, but sufficient; with repute not loud, but loudest in the mouths of those whose praise was best worth having—Canova, Schlegel, Fuseli; of quiet, beloved, modestly enthusiastic, and simply honourable life. He took for pupil a son of Hayley's, who presently afterwards sickened and died. In 1797 he was made an associate of the Boyal Academy. Every year he exhibited work of one class or another: occasionally a public monument in the round, like those of Paoli or Captain Montague for Westminister Abbey, and 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; 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 feet 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 now actually 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 Boyal 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 observa-tions, and with one singular merit,—that of doing justice, as in those days justice was hardly ever done, to the sculpture of the mediaeval 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; that to Lord Cornwallis, destined for India; and that to Sir John Moore, for Corunna ; with a pastoral Apollo for Lord Egremont. 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. In 1817 we find him returning to his old practice of classical outline illustra-tions, and producing the happiest of all his series in that kind, the designs to Hesiod, engraved by the friendly hand of Blake. Immediately afterwards he is much engaged designing for the goldsmiths—a testimonial cup in honour of John Kemble, and, following that, the great labour of the famous Shield of Achilles. Almost at the same time he undertakes 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.

In 1820 died Mrs Flaxman, 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 26th of December 1826, he caught cold in church, and died three 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 all men, full of modesty, full of playfulness and of a homely dignity withal, the truest friend, the kindest master, the purest and most 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 then 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 by far the best, and is indeed admir-ably 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 Mar-pessa in the Royal Academy compares with it favourably. Again, of Flaxman's complicated monuments in the round —we speak of 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 execu-tion. But when we come to his simple monuments in relief, in these we find usually an almost complete felicity. The truth is, that he did not thoroughly understand com-position on the great scale and in the round ; but he thoroughly understood relief, and found scope in it for all his unrivalled gifts of rhythmical design, and tender, grave, and penetrating feeling. Of pity and love he is a perfect master, and shows, as no one had ever shown before, how poignantly those passions can be expressed in the simplest conceivable combinations of human shapes and gestures. But if we would see even these the happiest of his concep-tions at their best, we must study them, not in the finished monument, but rather in the casts from his studio sketches, of which so precious a collection is preserved in the Flax-man 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 further 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 outlined and tinted sketches on paper. Of these, too, there is at University College a choice collection, and many others are dispersed in public and private cabinets. Every one knows the ex-cellence of the engraved designs to Homer, Dante, iEschy-lus, 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, but still more with those almost innumer-able studies from real life which he was continually producing with pen, tint, or pencil. These are the most delightful and suggestive sculptor's notes, so to speak, in existence; in them it was his habit to set down, with a perfect feeling and directness, the leading or 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 perfectly 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 perfectly the charm of the affections which link the figures together and harmonize their gestures.

The materials for the life of ITlaxman are scattered in various biographical and other publications; the principal are the follow- ing:—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, &c, 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 S. 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 Eossetti; 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 hi plates, with Descriptions, and an Intro- ductory Essay on the Life and Genius of Flaxman, by Prof. Sidney Colvin, M.A., atlas fob, London, 1876. (S. C.)

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