Friday, February 11, 2011

John Flaxman--Classicist

John Flaxman, devoted to classicism, a talented artist and sculptor, was as instrumental in forming the 'look' of the Regency world as the great designer, Robert Adam. I mentioned Flaxman briefly in a previous blog but he deserves a second, and much longer, look. His self-portrait, right

John Flaxman was born in 1755, some twenty-five years younger than his near contemporary Robert Adam. Like Adam he was steeped from his earliest days in the classical art, architecture and design of the Greeks. The son of a maker of plaster casts, he was a sickly child who spent his youth among his father's stock in trade and studied classical texts in order to understand them.

His artistic talent was developed early with help from patrons who were his father's customers. Renowned painter George Romney was an early admirer, and William Blake became one of his best friends. His early success was rewarded with honours which led him to become something of a 'coxcomb', but he could not earn a living from his work.

At 19 he began to work for Josiah Wedgwood, modelling classical figures for the trademark work of the famed potter. The cabinet, left, contains Wedgwood plaques thought to be his work.

He worked for Wedgwood for twelve years, honing his skill at bas-relief. As well, in 1780 he began to use that skill in producing grave monuments. His memorial work became very well-known and eventually his monuments graced churches all over the country, influencing the artistic taste and world view of the late Georgians.

From 1787 to 1794 he lived, with his wife, in Italy furthering his fascination and expertise with classical art and sculpture. It was there he undertook a marble sculpture--Fury of Athamas, right--which set the tone for future sculptural groups.

While in Britain he became best known for his sculptural and monumental work, on the continent he was famous for his work in outline design illustrations for classical literature. He was commissioned to do designs for the Iliad and Odyssey, for Dante and Aeschylus, for Hesiod and Pilgrim's Progress. Below top, from the Odyssey, Circe; below bottom, from the Odyssey, Suitors

In later life, John Flaxman exhibited every year at the Royal Academy of which he was an associate; he became a full Academician in 1800. He continued to produce public monuments and memorials for churches. His opinion in favour of the purchase of the Elgin marbles was much respected by the parliamentary commission studying the matter.

When you observe the Regency world you are seeing the influence of John Flaxman. He died in December 1826; he was by all accounts a good man and a good friend. He left a great body of work and a treasured memory and a legacy that informs Regency lovers today.

'Til next time,



Louisa Cornell said...


Thank you for this wonderful article! I had never heard of John Flaxman before and Regency architecture and design is something with I am deeply fascinated. And his connection to Josiah Wedgewood also appeals to me as my father toured the Wedgewood works in England in the early 70's and gifted my mother with some lovely pieces which we all treasure.

Terrific post!

Lesley-Anne McLeod said...

Thanks so much, Louisa, I'm glad you enjoyed the post. I was surprised to discover Flaxman had worked so long at Wedgwood, but given his interest in the classics I guess it makes sense. His work is so evocative of the early 19th century.