Nollekens and His Times/Volume 2/Flaxman

Nollekens and His Times/Volume 2
by John Thomas Smith
Nollekens's Contemporaries. Flaxman.
614454Nollekens and His Times/Volume 2 — Nollekens's Contemporaries. Flaxman.John Thomas Smith


John Flaxman was born in York, July 6th, 1755, and when a boy, was not, like other children, fond of toys; but took the greatest delight in every thing pertaining to sculpture. I have heard my father relate, that little John, when only six years of age, while standing between his knees, made the following request: "Mr. Smith, will you let me take a squeeze from your blue seal. My father has given me several impressions, and allows me to look at them when I am not engaged with my Latin books." To this anecdote I also subjoin the following, as it may be useful to some future biographer, who may be inclined to favour the public with a classic life of the inimitable Flaxman.

I have heard my late friend, the Rev. H. Mathew, relate, that in consequence of an accident which befel a model in his possession, he applied to M. Flaxman, a plaster figure-maker, who then lived in New-street, Covent-garden, to have it repaired. After he had conversed with him for some time in his shop, he heard a child cough behind the counter, and looking over, saw a little boy seated in a small chair before a large one, upon which he had a book. Mr. Mathew asked him what book he had. "It is a Latin one. Sir," replied the interesting little felllow, raising himself by the assistance of his crutches: "I am trying to learn Latin, Sir."—"Indeed!" observed the Divine: "then I will bring you a better book when I come to-morrow;" and from this incident Mr. Mathew continued to notice him, and, as he grew up, became his first and best friend.

When the boy could walk as far as Rathbone-place, (for, in consequence of a weak state of body, it was many years before he could take much exercise,) he was introduced to Mrs. Mathew; who was so kind as to read Homer to him, whilst he made designs on the same table with her at the time she was reading. These were noticed by her friend Mr. Crutchley, of Sunning-hill-park, who gave him a commission to make a set of historical drawings for him in black chalk, consisting of figures nearly two feet in height, which now are in the possession of my worthy friend Dr. Mathew, to whose mother they had been given by Mr. Crutchley, upon his leaving his town-residence in Clarges-street. They are six in number, and the subjects are: —

1. Œdipus conducted by his daughter Antigone to the Temple of the Furies; in which the uncertain step of Œdipus admirably expresses his blindness. 2. Dolon arrested as a spy by Diomedes and Ulysses. 3. The Death of Hector, in which are eight figures mourning over his body. 4. Alexander taking the cup from Philip, his physician, to whom Alexander has handed the accusation of an intention to poison him; wherein the Philosopher and aged Soldier are finely delineated. 5. Alceste about to preserve the life of her Husband, of whom and her Children she is taking leave; and the 6th represents her release from the Infernal Regions, and her restoration to her Husband by Hercules. The costume of the above drawings, and their effect of light and shade, prove the Artist's great attention to his subjects, even in his youth.

Mrs. Mathew also introduced young Flaxman to the late Mr. Knight, of Portland-place, who became his first employer as a Sculptor. For this gentleman he modelled a statue of Alexander the Great; and it is very remarkable, that my father, between whose knees little Flaxman had stood to request an impression of his seal, was the Sculptor selected by him to carve it. Mr. Flaxman's father had removed from New-street to a house in the Strand, opposite to Durham-yard, where Mr. Flaxman, Jun. became his lodger; but after his marriage, he took a small house in Wardour-street, now No. 27, and there he executed, as a Sculptor, many works for his friend Mr. Knight, who generously supplied him with money.

During his residence in this house, he was chosen by the Parish of St. Anne, in which he resided, as one of the Collectors for the Watch-rate; and I have often seen him, with an ink-bottle in his button-hole, collecting the rate. I also recollect reading in some newspaper the following paragraph: "We understand that Flaxman, the Sculptor, is about to leave his modest mansion in Wardour-street for Rome." In 1787, he left England, and studied in Rome, where he increased his friends and his fame, and returned to England in 1794; Upon his arrival, he took the premises in Buckingham-street, Fitzroy-square, where he died; and perhaps no man of such high and distinguished abilities had fewer enemies, nor a greater number of friends.

I cannot suffer the uninformed reader to conclude, that the carver's powers are not absolutely requisite to the fame of the designer and modeller; for, without his tasteful finishing, the most exquisite model may be totally deprived of its feeling, by the want of that fleshiness, which must ever charm the eye accustomed to dwell upon the fine productions of ancient Sculpture. The expression of a feature,—an eye for instance, so fascinating to the beholder, in which the very focus and soul of the modeller is seated,—if carelessly finished, might be lost for ever, particularly if too much of the stone were cut away. What an acquisition, then, an excellent carver must be in the studio of the classic Sculptor of high fame, whose mind must necessarily be engaged upon his designs; and whose hand, had it once been master of the tool, for the want of practice, could not manage it with so much ease as that of the artist who is continually employed on the marble only; nor, indeed, could his numerous commissions be executed by his hands alone. How, then, ought the modeller to value that carver, who possesses qualifications so highly essential to his future fame; and in the hour of sickness or affliction, how wise it would be in the employer, setting aside gratitude, which ought to be the first mover, to be attentive to the wants of one so useful to him!

In this feeling Nollekens was extremely deficient, for he seldom bestowed his encouragement even upon the most deserving person; though he would raise the wages of an idle fellow who fed his dog, and suffer his most valuable assistants to want. Poor Gahagan, for instance, who carved his figure of Pitt, erected in the Senate-house, at Cambridge, had only three hundred pounds for the task, when Nollekens's charge was three thousand! and when this excellent carver applied to Nollekens for fifty pounds more, stating that he had made a very hard bargain, his answer was, that he would think of it; and he certainly did leave him a small sum in his will; but Gahagan did not receive it until several years had elapsed, during which time he had undergone many serious vicissitudes of ill-fortune. Now, if the amount of the same sum had been given at the moment, it might have saved him many a cheerless and melancholy day. I most sincerely lament, that it was not in my power to render him that assistance, which, in a letter addressed to me, he requested; but had I been a Residuary Legatee of Mr. Nollekens's vast property, I can assert most solemnly, that my first act should have been to have requited him with the small sum which he so modestly and so painfully solicited. To the eternal honour of Flaxman be it recorded, that whenever any of his assistants were ill, or visited with misfortune, he made them frequent presents, or sent them the full amount which they would have received had they been occupied for his interest; nor did his humanity rest here, for if it were deemed expedient to have the opinion or advice of a physician, he always paid for his attendance.

Independently of my own long personal knowledge of Mr. Flaxman, I am enabled to relate several anecdotes of his goodness, with which I have been favoured by his pupil Baily, the Royal Academician, a native of Bristol, who now stands so eminently conspicuous in the Art of Sculpture.

In the early part of Flaxman's career, when at Rome, he was much noticed by an English nobleman, who employed him to execute a group of the Fury of Athamas, for which he was to receive a very small recompense. The artist, after working upon the marble for a considerable time, in conjunction with De Vere, whom he paid liberally for his assistance, often complained of the severe task which his inexperience had induced him to undertake for so small a sum of money; but at the same time declaring, that instead of giving it up, and returning to England, he would persevere with all his powers to accomplish it, even though he were to die by the block.

Modest as Flaxman in many instances certainly was, particularly in his later days, when he would listen to the opinions of others, few persons would believe that when he was a young man, he was the most conceited artist of his day; which, however, he acknowledged to his friend Baily to have been correctly the fact. He said, that when he presented his model for the gold medal at the Royal Academy, he believed, what many students then told him, that to a certainty he would gain the prize, and he continued to entertain that opinion even to the very hour of distribution; though he had received a pretty severe check on the day upon which he and his antagonist were to try their skill, by modelling a subject proposed by the Council in the presence of the Keeper, in order to convince the Academicians that each artist was fully capable of producing models equal to those they had sent in. Now it must be here noticed, that the two candidates, Flaxman and Engleheart, had agreed to allow each other to see what he had produced, within a certain time of the hours limited by the Council; at the expiration of the proposed time, Engleheart stepped forward to see what Flaxman, who had worked rapidly, and with the fullest confidence, had done; but when Flaxman walked round to look at Engleheart's model, he found that he had not even commenced; upon which, he was bold enough to conclude, that the medal must unquestionably be adjudged to him. Engleheart, who had been deeply engaged in thought, was not discouraged by what he had seen, but received fresh vigour, and ultimately astonished Flaxman, who, notwithstanding, was so perfectly satisfied in his own mind of success, that he had boldly invited several friends to dine with him on the day of distribution, and actually left them with a view to go and take his medal, and a promise to return as soon as he had received it. But, alas! how fondly do we deceive ourselves! what was his chagrin, when, instead of hearing the name of Flaxman, that of Engleheart was pronounced as the successful candidate!

This timely lesson, he declared, so effectually operated upon his conceit, that he was determined ever after to talk less of his own talents, and to endeavour to do justice to those of others, who were also aspiring to the pinnacle of fame.—Sir Joshua Reynolds meeting Flaxman soon after he had received the hand of Miss Denman, in 1782, said to him, "So, Flaxman, you are married; there's no going to Italy now." Mr. Baily, my informant, added, that it has been said, that it was in consequence of this observation of the President, that he was determined to visit Rome. Little did Sir Joshua imagine that the Sculptor to whom he then spoke, who at that time was only a student in the Academy, and inhabiting No. 27, one of the smallest houses in Wardour-street; would execute a statue to his memory, and that it would be erected in the Cathedral of St. Paul; nor could he ever suspect, great as his fame was, thas this statue would have been as often visited as those of Pasquin and Marforio, or that the pedestal would have displayed the signatures of some of the highest characters in Europe, so justly celebrated for their worth and talent.

Lord and Lady Inchiquin solicited Nollekens to execute Sir Joshua's monument, which he declined, by stating that his engagements would not permit him to undertake it; but I never heard until lately, that he had recommended it to Flaxman, as some have asserted. For my own part, too, I do not believe it, as they were never intimate, and their modes of thinking and living were so diametrically opposite, that it was not possible for a man with Flaxman's elegant and benevolent feelings, to associate with Nollekens. I am fully convinced also, from the ignorant observations which I have heard him make upon Flaxman,—whose sublime ideas and conversations on Art he never could understand,—that Flaxman never would have been preferred by him to Scheemakers's nephew, whose business of monmument-making, for so I must call it with him, arose entirely from the overflowings of the studio of Nollekens, his uncle's pupil.

At no period of Mr. Flaxman's life did he ever receive a present from any one beneath himself; and whenever he accepted any thing from persons, even in the highest station, he always selected something to give them in return, of at least double the value of that received: nor did he at any time, under any consideration whatever, when making a purchase, give less than what he conscientiously considered to be the full value. On the contrary, he has frequently been heard most vehemently to reprobate that detestable custom, so often practised by sordid and speculative money-getting men, of monopolizing articles, with a view of their increasing enormously in value at some future period.

Lavater, who has thought proper to judge of the qualities of a man's mind, by many slight peculiarities in the person's face or hand-writing, would have been perfectly safe, had he estimated the eminence of Flaxman's talents from the simplicity of his dress. His hair was simply combed, he never at any time wore powder, nor did he ever attempt to to exhibit ornaments of finery; he never kept a servant in livery, though sometimes his polisher of marble, John Burge, stood behind his chair, at the Royal Academy dinners, in his Sunday clothes.

It is not the practise of modern Sculptors, to use the carving-tool according to the custom of the ancients: Michel Angelo was at times his own boaster, and it has been said, that he would carve a figure at once from the block, without having any model to work from. Of Michel Angelo's method of carving, our country can boast of a noble specimen, in the exquisitely-beautiful composition of the Holy Family, brought to England by Sir George Beaumont, and now erected by the worthy Baronet in his gallery in Grosvenor-square. Its effect is so imposing, that when the spectator is standing at a little distance, this inestimable treasure, though unfinished, appears more like the commencement of a chiaro-oscuro picture, than a production in any kind of stone. The style of the whole work is square and bold beyond conception, and appears as if the great artist had played with his chisel, as he did with his modelling tool: the hand of the Virgin is inimitable.

Nollekens's time was mostly employed in modelling, and in consequence of his great practice, he acquired such dexterity with his clay, that he brought a bust wonderfully forward with his thumb and finger only. Flaxman also principally employed himself in modelling; but though not so dexterous as Nollekens, he kneaded the clay in a rough manner with the hand, under the influence bf a great mind. The manner in which he produced that noble specimen, the shield of Achilles, for Messrs. Rundell and Bridge, the eternal monument of his fame, was truly curious. He first modelled the general design, without attending minutely to the respective parts; it was then moulded in compartments, and cast in plaster, and he afterwards finished it up, by cutting away to that inimitable height of excellence, which enabled his spirited employers to produce those splendid casts of it in silver gilt, which adorn the side-boards of the King, his Royal Highness the Duke of York, his Grace the Duke of Northumberland, &c.

No one could be more blessed with the friendship of men of worth than Flaxman. Those highly esteemed characters William Hayley, Thomas Hope, and Samuel Rogers, were among his dear and inseparable friends; the latter of whom has not only the good fortune of having the chimney-pieces and cornices of the rooms of his elegant mansion in St. James's-place, executed from the designs of Flaxman, but is also, fortunately, in possession of two figures of Cupid and Psyche; which works alone would do eternal honour to the artist, and the liberal and tasteful possessor, who bespoke them. The first monument by Flaxman, after his return to England, was that of Lord Mansfield, erected in Westminster Abbey. In 1804, he had two other public monuments in hand; one being to the memory of Captain Montagu, for Westminster Abbey, the other of Admiral Earl Howe. In 1808, he was engaged in the following public works:— A national monument, for St. Paul's, of Admiral Viscount Nelson, in which the hero is resting on an anchor, surrounded by figures of the Seas; and beside the pedestal, Britannia is directing the attention of two boys to the Admiral. A statue of Mr. Pitt, for Glasgow. A statue of Sir Joshua Reynolds, for St. Paul's. A monument of Mr. Pitt, for India, as Chancellor of the Exchequer.

In 1820, the Duke of Bedford nobly converted a building, erected in 1789 for a greenhouse, into a gallery, for the reception of ancient and modern Sculpture. It measures one hundred and thirty-eight feet in length, twenty-five in breadth, and twenty-two by seven inches in height: and I shall here insert a quotation from a magnificent folio volume, privately printed at the Duke's expense, entitled, "Outline Engravings and Descriptions of the Woburn Abbey Marbles, 1822."

"On the tympanum of the pediment of the portico of the Temple of Liberty, is a beautiful allegorical group, composed by Flaxman, representing the Goddess of Liberty, supporting a spear with one hand, and elevating in the other her pileus, or symbolical cap. On her right is Peace, holding a branch of olive, and caressing a lamb, near which a lion is reposing. On the left of the Goddess are Genii, pouring out of the horn of plenty the rich fruits of the earth; near which are a bale of merchandize and sheaves of corn."

Plate thirty-eighth of this costly work exhibits an outline of the above pediment, beautifully etched by Moses, whose needle is sure to enrich every work in which it is employed.

When the late Mr. Kemble retired from the stage, several of his numerous friends, considering that some decided and permanent mark of their high approbation of his dignified career should be voted him, Mr. Flaxman was requested to design a cup, or vase, which it was agreed should be executed by Messrs. Rundell and Bridge, and presented at the Farewell-dinner. Flaxman, entertaining the most profound veneration for the grand and elevated talents of Kemble, not only acquiesced in their wishes, by commencing immediately upon the pleasing task, but liberally presented the design as his part of the subscription, which composition was modelled by his pupil Mr. Baily.

The design is a tripod-stand, upon which a cup or vase is placed, surmounted by a wreath of laurels, standing erect. The first panel contains a bust of Shakspeare on a therme.[1] A figure, representing Kemble, is seated, studying with a book in his hands: a winged figure, the Genius of Shakspeare, has just descended to direct his attention to the following characters of the great dramatic poet, which are inscribed on the therme in the following order; viz. King John, Macbeth, Hamlet, Richard, Hotspur, Wolsey, Posthumus, Romeo, Brutus, and Coriolanus. The second side represents Mr. Kemble, advanced in years, and just descended from the stage, upon which he has left his senatorial chair, and dropped his dagger, while a figure of Tragedy, who has followed him, is crowning him with laurels. Upon the third was engraven the dedicatory inscription, composed by Mr. Poole. The whole of the working-expenses of this elegant tripod-cup and wreath, (weighing nearly four hundred ounces of silver, in value ahout three hundred guineas,) were liberally presented by Messrs. Rundell and Bridge as their subscription.

The cup not being finished, the drawing and cast were produced, by Mr. Mathews and Mr. Rae, at the Freemasons' Tavern, on June 27th, 1817, the day Mr. Kemble attended his Farewell-dinner, which was graced by the presence of twenty-two Noblemen, nine Members of the Royal Academy, William Locke, Samuel Rogers, and other eminent and highly talented characters.

Mr. Flaxman, after receiving the highest encomiums upon so classic and elegant a design, in returning thanks, kept gradually walking up to the noble President, and, when he had finished his address, returned to his seat, filled his glass, with which he again advanced to the noble Lord, and drank to the whole company for the honour they had done him in drinking his health. The address of Mr. Flaxman to Lord Holland was, like most of his speeches, short and nervous. He declared that the merit of the design was highly increased by the name of the man whose memory the cup was to perpetuate; and he also assured his Lordship, that he felt proud in knowing that his name would be hereafter associated with the object of that day's commemoration.

When Mr. Kemble left this country for the benefit of his health, which, by his theatrical exertions, was most seriously impaired, he left this elegant memento in the possession of his celebrated sister, Mrs. Siddons.

Upon Mr. Flaxman seeing some of Mr. Stothard's early and beautiful designs for the Novelist's Magazine, in the course of its periodical publication, he observed to his father, that he should like to know the artist; an intimacy soon commenced, and they ever after entertained a mutual friendship for each other. Wherever Mr. Flaxman found superior talent, he upon all occasions spake openly. and nobly of its possessor. I recollect, when my father showed him the early productions of Mr. Howard, the Academician, that he considered them as works of the highest promise, and nothing could possibly exceed the encomiums which Mr. Flaxman continued to express, till the end of his life, upon the productions of that amiable artist: and I must also declare, though I own in feeble language, that the eloquent and honourable eulogium passed upon Mr. Flaxman, by the President of the Royal Academy, did not surpass in esteem and respect the manner in which Mr. Howard has always mentioned the name of Flaxman.

I was present one evening, at the Argyll-Rooms, when Pistrucci, the Improvisatore, received, amongst other papers, from the audience, a request for his ideas in poetry for the composition for a monument to the memory of Canova; after he had read the request, he bowed to the centre of the second seat before him, and passed an elegant encomium upon our late British Phidias; saying, he could not think of delivering his ideas upon that subject, while there was a Flaxman present, who could, with a few lines of his pencil, far surpass ten thousand lines of his verses.

To the eternal honour of Sir Thomas Lawrence, the first English Artist who has followed the noble example of Sir Peter Paul Rubens, by liberally purchasing the works of contemporary artists, he has not only secured likenesses of Fuseli, Smirke, and Stothard, but unquestionably one of the finest busts of Flaxman extant, which are from the hand of Baily, the Academician, Flaxman's favourite pupil. Sir Thomas is also the fortunate possessor of two figures, designed and modelled by Flaxman, measuring about two feet in height; one represents Michel Angelo, the other Raffaelle. These stand in his front-parlour, unconscious of the inestimable treasures the cabinets of that room contain from their immortal hands.

For some weeks previous to his decease, though he was met in the street by several friends only three days before his death, he certainly was on the decline; and yet his dissolution was unexpected. He departed in his house in Buckingham-street, and was buried in the church-yard of St. Giles's-in-the-Fields, next to that of St. Pancras Old Church.

The following inscription is cut upon an altar-tomb erected to the memory of his wife in the middle of the burial-ground:—

"John Flaxman, R.A.P.S.[2]
Whose mortal life
Was a constant preparation
For a blessed immortality:
Hit angelic spirit returned to the Divine Giver
On the 7th of December, 1826,
In the 72d year of his age."

  1. Mr. Flaxman took this head of Shakspeare from Droeshout's print, which, if we may rely upon the testimony of Ben Jonson, who was no flatterer, was considered an excellent likeness of his rival. My own humble opinion is, that most, if not all the pictures which have been engraved with the greatest avidity, are most impudent impositions; produced, as many of them can be proved, by well-known impostors and needy men, whose necessitous families have urged them, like the Apothecary in Romeo and Juliet» to sell the poison.
  2. He was the first Professor of Sculpture in the Royal Academy.