Detail of the monument to Sarah Morley at Gloucester Cathedral, 1785
Artist Porcelain Sculpture

John Flaxman is a brilliant sculptor and consummate illustrator

Monument to Admiral Nelson, 1807
Monument to Admiral Nelson, 1807

Brilliant sculptor and consummate illustrator in the history of English art

John Flaxman the famous English sculptor of the late 18th early 19th centuries, a prominent representative of neoclassicism in the history of European art. John Flaxman was also a talented draftsman, engraver and illustrator, and the best masterpieces of his work are now kept mainly in British museums. The master’s biography is full of interesting events and outstanding achievements.

John Flaxman became famous in his youth thanks to the skillful manufacture of tombstones, the memorial bas-reliefs created by him can still be found in many churches in England today. And in his mature years, the artist devoted a lot of time and effort to teaching, giving lectures to students at the British Academy of Arts.

Monument to William Murray, 1801
Monument to William Murray, 1801

Biography of John Flaxman

John Flaxman was born on July 6, 1755 in York, where his parents had moved from London shortly before. He was the second child in the family of the owner of a small shop selling plaster casts of his own production and from an early age did not differ in good health. Six months after the birth of their son, the parents returned to the capital of England, where John spent his childhood.

The boy loved to help the head of the family in the shop and workshop, early on he became interested in drawing and modeling, but he attended school with great displeasure. At the age of nine, his mother died, his father married a second time and after that did not particularly care about his son’s education. Young Flaxman got the opportunity to devote most of his time to his favorite pursuits, and very soon it bore the first fruits.

Tombstone for Charles Philip, 1788
Tombstone for Charles Philip, 1788

John’s talent was noticed by many of his father’s clients, among which the artist George Romney and the priest Anthony Stephen Mathew should be noted. They were the first to support the young genius, first with advice and guidance, and later began to order all kinds of clay crafts from him. Already at the age of 12, John Flaxman first took part in an exhibition of the Free Society of Artists, and three years later he was accepted to study at the British Academy of Arts. For several years in a row, the young artist participated in the competition for the best works, but he could not win the gold medal.

Detail of the monument to Sarah Morley at Gloucester Cathedral, 1785
Detail of the monument to Sarah Morley at Gloucester Cathedral, 1785

Carier start

After completing his studies at the Academy in 1775, the young man got a job with Josiah Wedgwood, the owner of a manufacturer of decorative ceramics. His main responsibility was the development of original wax relief models, which were then launched into mass production. In addition to his main work, John Flaxman managed to create sculptural compositions and busts from plaster and clay for all kinds of customers.

John Flaxman. Bas-relief of the Four Muses and Apollo, 1778-80
Bas-relief of the Four Muses and Apollo, 1778-80

Since 1780, the master discovered another type of creative activity for himself, he took up the professional manufacture of tombstones and his work very quickly gained recognition among the general public. Two more years later, he married Anna Denman and lived with her for almost 40 years, but the couple had no children. In 1787, the artist and his wife left for Italy, this trip was partially financed by his former employer Wedgwood. The couple lived in the capital of Italy for almost seven years and it was here that the master first began to make book illustrations for the works of famous ancient authors.

John Flaxman. Musgrave Watson. Monument to John Flaxman, 1847
Musgrave Watson. Monument to John Flaxman, 1847
In 1794, John Flaxman returned to London and never left the city again.

By that time, he was already considered one of the best European masters of sculpture, who was willingly entrusted by customers with the development of expensive monumental projects. He created a number of monuments to prominent figures of the British Empire, and also devoted much time to the development of projects for the decorative decoration of London palaces and public buildings.

In 1810, Flaxman was appointed professor at the Academy of Arts and was actively involved in teaching. Dozens of his interesting lectures, which students attended with pleasure, were subsequently published in the form of separate brochures.

John Flaxman. Illustration to Odyssey 1793
Illustration to Odyssey 1793

In 1820, the artist’s wife died and he spent the rest of his life in his own house in the company of his own sister Maria Flaxman and sister-in-law Maria Dedman. Until the last days, the master continued to work with enthusiasm, despite serious health problems. And on December 9, 1826, John Flaxman died at the age of 71. He was buried in the graveyard of the old London Church of St. Pancras, but the sculptor’s grave has not survived to this day.

The most famous works of John Flaxman

The brilliant British artist left a huge artistic legacy to his descendants. Yet some of John Flaxman’s most famous works include:

  • The cycle of illustrations for Homer’s Iliad (1793) is a collection of black-and-white and color drawings for the immortal creation of the ancient poet. This large-scale work of the author, created by him during his stay in Italy, subsequently underwent many reprints.
  • The Fury of Afam (1794) is one of the best works of the artist’s early period. The heroes of the sculptural composition still amaze viewers with ideal proportions and emotions vividly embodied in stone.
  • Monument to Admiral Nelson (1807) a masterpiece installed at the burial site of the great British military leader in St. Paul’s Cathedral. Nelson in full dress is depicted on a pedestal towering over society in recognition of his great services to the Motherland.
  • “Pastoral of Apollo” (1824) is one of the last works of the brilliant sculptor. An ancient Greek god with an ideal male figure appears before the audience in the company of a faithful dog in moments of quiet rest.

John Flaxman is rightfully one of the greatest artists in the history of English art. His wonderful sculptural works still adorn many temples and squares, and vivid illustrations are the pages of the best masterpieces of literary classics.

John Flaxman. Jasperware vase and cover, Wedgwood (1790
Jasperware vase and cover, Wedgwood (1790)