The John Flaxman Collection

Introduction

UCL Art Museum has an unrivalled collection of works by the neo-classical sculptor John Flaxman. Flaxman was known throughout Europe for his innovative drawing style and for his sculptures, and UCL possesses many examples of works in both these media.

The sculptures are mostly preparatory models for funerary monuments, many of which can be found in churches throughout Britain and even as far afield as India and the Bahamas. After many years of negotiation and the payment of £120, not a small sum in those days, they were donated to UCL in 1847 by Maria Denman, Flaxman’s sister-in-law. Small-scale sketch models for entire monuments are on permanent display in UCL Art Museum, and plaster casts of full-size details are displayed around the walls of the purpose-built Flaxman Gallery under the dome in the main UCL Library. At the centre of the gallery is the eleven-foot high plaster model of Flaxman’s most famous statue, St Michael Overcoming Satan.

The Flaxman Gallery was host to scenes in Christopher Nolan's award-winning film Inception, and was Film London's 'Location of the Month' for July 2010 . Read more here.

Flaxman's drawings

Amongst Flaxman’s drawings held in the collection are his illustrations for The Iliad, for The Odyssey, and for Dante’s Divine Comedy. Their style is Flaxman’s own invention, derived from Greek vases; superfluous detail is suppressed in favour of pure outline.

Flaxman's funerary monument

Flaxman's clay model

UCL Art Museum contains both the small sketch model and the large plaster cast for this funerary monument dating from 1804. The marble, now destroyed, was housed in St Stephen’s church in Coleman Street, London.

The small plaster is cast from Flaxman’s clay model, his preparatory sketch for the monument. The cast would then have been used as a guide in the process of scaling-up in preparation for a full-size marble. This model bears the marks of the sculptor’s hands, and has an immediacy and a vitality not always obvious in highly finished marble monuments.

It shows two female figures grieving and embracing over an urn – a symbol of eternity, a link with the classical past and simply a reminder of death. The whole is ordered by restrained classical forms: the tapering stele is surmounted by a pediment with acroteria and a central palmette. Below the figures is the inscription tablet, left blank at this stage.

The larger plaster model would have been scaled up by Flaxman and his assistants from the small sketch model, and is an intermediate stage in the production of the marble monument.

There was no need at this stage to include the classical stele or pediment in the design, as these were formulaic elements, only to define the figures. This is essentially a refined sculpture, physically smooth, and very close in detail and finish to the full-scale marble monument.

Flaxman's early artistic education

Flaxman's early artistic education

Signed and dated 1779, this self-portrait sums up Flaxman’s early artistic education at the Academy Schools. His classical training is revealed by the antique figure on the plinth and the tablet with an acanthus leaf design – he would have copied many such objects as part of his training.

Flaxman presents himself as an artist, depicted in the act of drawing and gazing intently out at the viewer. His right hand rests on a human skull, a typical attribute of a memento mori image. In view of his later career as the foremost sculptor of funerary monuments, this melancholy prop is prophetic.