Modern Drama, c.1809
John Flaxman RA (1755 - 1826)
RA Collection: Art
On free display in Dame Jillian Sackler Sculpture Gallery
In 1809 John Flaxman was commissioned to produce two stone friezes for the façade of the Covent Garden Theatre, designed by Robert Smirke RA. The theatre burnt down in 1856, and the only works to survive were the friezes and two statues by Flaxman and Charles Rossi. The friezes inserted in the new building designed by E. M. Barry (1830-1880) erected on the site—the Royal Opera House. Flaxman’s frieze was reset behind a tall Corinthian portico and the order of the scenes changed to fit the smaller façade of the new theatre. This relief, and another in the RA collection (representing Ancient Drama) are models for those friezes.
The central (seated) figures are John Milton (facing right), with figures from his poem Comus and William Shakespeare is seated on the left, with figures from his plays The Tempest (Caliban, Prospero, Ferdinand and Miranda) and Macbeth (Macbeth and Lady Macbeth), as well as figures in a chariot pulled by two oxen.
Apart from Flaxman’s funerary commissions, and his illustrations of the Classics (including the works of Aeschylus), his Covent Garden friezes were perhaps his most influential works. They were some of the earliest works of British art to show the influence of the Greek sculptures Lord Elgin controversially brought to London from the Parthenon in Athens. Flaxman inspected these sculptures in the grounds of Elgin’s Park Lane home in 1807, soon after their arrival in London.
Like the Parthenon, Flaxman’s long frieze is alternates between moments of energy and repose. The dynamic figures from Macbeth and Comus provide a momentum which is counterbalanced by the mirrored dramatists in the centre. The oxen on the far left are reminiscent of the Elgin marbles, which Flaxman in his Fourth Lecture at the Royal Academy described as 'the most precious examples of Grecian power in the sculpture of animals', in which the horses seem 'to live and move, to roll their eyes, to gallop, prance, and curvet … the beholder is charmed with the deer-like lightness and elegance of their make' (Flaxman, 1838, p.102).
Contemporary reviews of the works were enthusiastic, with one writer in 1815 finding that 'the composition and executive part of these basso relieves [low reliefs], are entitled to every praise; the characters, in the main, are marked with much boldness and precision; there is a spirit of poetical imagery in the allegorical and ideal appendages, which gives to this sculpture a kind of epic dignity, not unworthy [of] the genius of the master, from whom the general idea has been caught.'
The model for Ancient Drama was Flaxman’s work alone, although contemporary references state that the model for Modern Drama was executed by Smirke’s protégé Charles Rossi RA (1762-1839). Rossi, who also cut the stone for both friezes, complained about this work taking him away from other commissions such as his monuments in St. Paul's Cathedral. The Academician and diarist Joseph Farington related that Rossi 'spoke of the little power Flaxman has in working upon marble or stone. His power is confined to designing and modelling.'
Encyclopaedia Londinensis, Volume 13, London 1815, p.532
John Flaxman, Lectures on Sculpture, London 1838, p.102
David Irwin, John Flaxman 1755- 1826. Sculptor, Illustrator, Designer, London 1979, p.172
490 mm x 3550 mm x 100 mm, Weight: 60 kg
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