As a major survey of the 18th century sculptor John Flaxman opens at Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, now is the time to assess his links to the West Midlands and continued relevance today.
Josiah Wedgwood and Matthew Boulton are, of course, the two great names associated with West Midlands life in the 18th century. Their relationship during life is well documented, but perhaps less well known is that even in death these two industrialists share an unexpected link, in the form of celebrated artist, sculptor and draughtsman John Flaxman.
Well known during his lifetime for his grand monuments to the deceased, Flaxman was called upon to create the memorials erected for each man in their respective parish churches: the Wedgwood memorial in St Peter ad Vincula, Stoke-on-Trent, and the Matthew Boulton memorial in St Mary’s Church, Handsworth. In so doing, the work of one of the nation’s greatest Neoclassicist sculptors became easily viewable by all, remaning in situ today.
John Flaxman (1755-1826) was a leading exponent of British Neoclassicism. Drawing on the uncomplicated designs of ancient Roman and Greek art, the Neoclassical movement was a reaction to the fussy Rococo and Baroque styles of the first half of the 18th century, instead using pared down, classical designs to convey beauty and emotion. Flaxman came to be considered a master of the style, renowned for his simple, spare line-drawings, small-scale relief sculptures and, later in life, many major memorial sculptures.
Born in York, England, in 1755, Flaxman learnt the techniques of sculpting in his father’s plaster-cast workshop, beginning his own career as a designer for Josiah Wedgwood’s world-famous pottery. Credited by the company as “probably the most significant artist employed by Josiah Wedgwood during his lifetime”, Flaxman had a significant impact on the factory’s designs, many of which are still considered some of the finest of the Wedgwood’s output.
His early models and designs were ideally suited to the white reliefs used by Wedgwood on the iconic Jasperware and were often taken directly from classically-inspired themes. Yet Flaxman’s work was not simply confined to two-dimensional sculpture; a set of chess pieces modelled by Flaxman in around 1783 were still in production some hundred years later. Two medals by Flaxman were manufactured at Matthew Boulton’s Soho Mint in Birmingham during this time, as were models for numerous portrait medallions in three-quarters view, considered the most difficult to achieve.
Flaxman’s success provided him with the means to travel and so in 1787 he left for Rome, partly sponsored by Wedgwood. Intending a visit of two years but in fact staying for seven, Flaxman completed only a handful of designs for Wedgwood during this time, focusing instead on his own projects. It turned out to be the most creative and celebrated period of his career, bringing him fame throughout Europe.
The cause of this new-found notoriety were his engravings for publications of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Dante’s Divine Comedy and The Tragedies of Aeschylus. Instantly successful, the illustrations were universally acknowledged to have captured the very essence of Homeric Greece and medieval Italy. Outline studies of male figures in cloaks and the famous sketch of a woman shaking a cloth out of a window are distinctive in their purity, reduced to a few essential lines. Emerging at the time of the Grand Tour and a renewed, universal interest in the Classical period, Flaxman’s work was at the very cutting edge of fashion.
On returning to London, Flaxman continued his practice in sculpture, finding numerous commissions for major public monuments as well as smaller funerary monuments produced in large numbers for churches throughout Great Britain and the Empire, including St Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey.
His workshop was extensive, with Flaxman often confining himself to drawings and plaster models, leaving others to create the final marbles. These later works commemorate the dead with simplicity, using a limited number of styles with only subtle changes applied to distinguish between works. The aesthetic restraint of the monuments lends an emotional dimension, focusing often on the grief of the departed rather than the great works achieved during a lifetime.
During this period, in 1795, Flaxman was commissioned to create the monument for his friend Josiah Wedgwood, a fitting role for someone so deeply concerned with the Wedgwood pottery. The Matthew Boulton memorial followed, commissioned by Boulton’s son in 1809, and still standing on the north wall of the sanctuary of St Mary’s Church. It includes a marble bust of Boulton set in a circular opening, alongside an engraving of the Soho manufactury itself.
Flaxman died in 1826, with many of his sketches and preparatory works eventually preserved in the Flaxman Gallery at University College London. Whilst a sculptor of his time, the simplicity of his style and the universal nature of his subject matter speak beyond the ages, making his work as relevant to us now as it was to those who encountered it first two hundred years ago.
John Flaxman, Line to Contour, is on show at Ikon Gallery in Birmingham from 13 February – 21 April 2013, including rarely seen drawings and plasters from the collection at the UCL Museum, University College London. Entrance is free.
Visit www.ikon-gallery.co.uk for more information on opening times, access and associated events.