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John Flaxman RA (1755 - 1826)

RA Collection: People and Organisations

John Flaxman was born in York and grew up in London where he studied sculpture at the Royal Academy Schools from 1770. There, he became close friends with William Blake and Thomas Stothard. Flaxman was fascinated with ancient myth and literature from an early age and his work exemplifies the age of neoclassicism in Britain. In 1775 he began designing decorative figures for the Wedgwood pottery factory, showing an early willingness to adapt his art to the requirements of commerce and decoration.

In 1787 Flaxman embarked on a journey to Rome (with financial help from Wedgwood). He stayed for seven years, during which time he emerged as a major international figure. In Italy Flaxman found patrons willing to commission large and unconventional sculptures such as The Fury of Athamas (1790-94, National Trust), a subject from Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

It was also in Italy that Flaxman was commissioned to illustrate the works of Dante, Homer and Aeschylus. Many of his original drawings for these scenes are now in the RA collection. Flaxman’s illustrations were etched by Tommaso Piroli and sold in printed form and it was to these, more than his sculpture, that he owed his success overseas. No British sculptor before Henry Moore enjoyed a greater internatioonal reputation than Flaxman.

On his return from Italy, Flaxman began his career as a monumental sculpture in earnest, taking a particular interest in funerary monuments. He was elected an Associate of the RA (1797) and a full member in 1800, by which time his work was on display in all the major cathedrals, municipal buildings and galleries in England. His stone friezes Ancient Drama and Modern Drama, plaster models for which are in the RA collection, were made for the Covent Garden Theatre (now the Royal Opera House) in 1809. They were saved when the building burnt down in 1856 and were inserted into the new building, where they can still be seen.

The last twenty years of Flaxman’s life were commercially unsuccessful, however, as the larger studios of Francis Chantrey and John Rossi essentially took over his market. Nonetheless, Flaxman’s reputation remained high and in 1810 he was appointed as the first Professor of Sculpture at the Royal Academy. He began his lectures on sculpture in 1811, which unlike those of other academicians, were only published posthumously in 1829. In their gravity and erudition they were in keeping with the character and appearance of a conscientious, retiring man who was the opposite of the muscular, heroic image of the sculptor.

In 1874, a statue of Flaxman leaning on a bust of Homer was erected on the façade of Burlington House alongside Leonardo, Michelangelo and other of great artists, while thirty years later he was represented on the façade of the Victoria and Albert Museum, demonstrating his reputation in the nineteenth century.


Royal Academician

Born: 6 July 1755 in York, Yorkshire, England, United Kingdom

Died: 7 December 1826

Nationality: British

RA Schools student from 7 October 1769

Elected ARA: 6 November 1797

Elected RA: 10 February 1800

Professor of Sculpture: 1810 - 1826

Gender: Male

Preferred media: Sculpture, Chasing, and Illustration

Works by John Flaxman in the RA Collection

109 results

Works after John Flaxman in the RA Collection

226 results

Works associated with John Flaxman in the RA Collection

46 results

Associated books

27 results

Associated archives

69 results