[1] The Braschi Venus, 1811. Photo RA © Royal Academy of Arts, London

[2] Scylla, 1792-93. Photo RA/John Hammond © Royal Academy of Arts, London

[3] Apollo and Marpessa, c.1790-94. Photo RA © Royal Academy of Arts, London

[4] Ancient Drama (detail), c1809. Photo RA/Paul Highnam © Royal Academy of Arts, London

[5] Modern Drama (detail), c1809. Photo RA © Royal Academy of Arts, London

Artist of the Month - October 2017


John Flaxman RA (1755-1826)

John Flaxman was born in York and grew up in London where he studied sculpture at the newly-founded Royal Academy Schools from 1769. Fascinated by ancient myth and literature from an early age, some of his first sculptures depicted subjects from Homer and Ovid. Works like these caught the eye of Thomas Wedgwood who commissioned the young artist to produce designs for his fashionable neo-classical pottery. Flaxman's principle interest as a sculptor, however, was in funerary monuments and his work in this genre can be seen in Westminster Abbey, St. Paul's Cathedral and Winchester Cathedral.

Flaxman was recognised as one of the leading sculptors of his day and he was appointed as the first Professor of Sculpture at the Royal Academy in 1810. Flaxman produced this drawing of the 'Braschi Venus' (now in the Glyptothek, Munich) to illustrate his lectures [1]. The figure is a Roman copy of a lost Greek original by the sculptor Praxiteles. In his lectures, Flaxman praised the Greek sculptor for excelling 'in the highest graces of youth and beauty' and explained this figure was 'said to be more perfect than any other'.

However, it was Flaxman's talent as a draughtsman that won him international acclaim. While living in Rome in the early 1790s, he was commissioned to illustrate the works of Dante, Homer and Aeschylus [2]. Emulating the graceful forms of classical art, Flaxman found particular inspiration in the intense, stylised portrayals of dramatic scenes in Ancient Greek vase painting. His dynamic yet understated outline illustrations were an immediate success and were published as engravings throughout Europe.

Despite the success of his illustrations, Flaxman complained that his ambition 'did not terminate in giving a few outlines to the world'. His translation of the 'purest line' of his drawings into three dimensional form can be seen in the marble sculpture Apollo and Marpessa [3]. This depicts a little-known scene from The Iliad in which the god Apollo attempts to seduce the beautiful mortal Marpessa. Flaxman emphasised the poetic rather than narrative elements of this episode. As in many of the illustrations, the background details are minimal allowing the movement and expressions of the figures to become the main focus of the composition. The relief was carved in Rome before the artist and his wife returned to London in 1794. When Flaxman was elected a member of the Royal Academy in 1800, he presented this sculpture to the institution as his Diploma work and it was displayed in the summer exhibition of that year.

In 1809 John Flaxman was commissioned to produce two stone friezes - Ancient Drama and Modern Drama - for the façade of the Covent Garden Theatre (now the Royal Opera House). The building was damaged by fire in 1856 but the friezes were saved and inserted into the new building. The plaster models for the friezes are in the Royal Academy Collection [4 & 5]. In Ancient Drama, the left half of the frieze represents Greek comedy with the figures Aristophanes and Menander, and the right Greek Tragedy with Aeschylus. They are surrounded by the Muses (pictured). Modern Drama shows the English writer John Milton seated on the right with figures from his dramatic poem Comus. Shakespeare appears on the left with characters from The Tempest and Macbeth and Lady Macbeth (pictured). Apart from Flaxman's funerary commissions, these friezes are perhaps his most influential work. However, most importantly, they are among the first works of art made in Britain to show the influence of the Parthenon marbles. Flaxman visited the marbles soon after their arrival in England when they were available for study in the grounds of Lord Elgin's London house in Park Lane from 1807. He had also seen plaster casts of the Parthenon marbles in Paris in 1802 and would have known engravings of the works.

John Flaxman's models for Ancient Drama and Modern Drama can be seen in a new display curated by Richard Deacon RA on The Dame Jillian Sackler Sculpture Gallery.