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John Flaxman, Sculptor Of Eternity

Richard Lines MA

The reputation of the poet, artist and visionary William Blake (currently the subject of a major exhibition at Tate Britain, the old Tate Gallery on Millbank) seems to grow greater by the year, while that of his friend, contemporary and fellow-artist, John Flaxman, has languished for many years and he is now known only to scholars and art historians. There is irony in this. Flaxman was one of the best-known English artists of his day and had a European reputation, while Blake was hardly known in his lifetime and for many years afterwards. Known best for his funerary monuments and for his exquisite outline drawings, Flaxman became a Royal Academician in 1800 and was appointed its first Professor of Sculpture in 1810. It is not widely known that he was one of the "founding fathers" of the Swedenborg Society in that same year and served on its governing committee on several occasions thereafter.

John Flaxman, Blake’s senior by two years, was born in York in 1755. He was the son of a maker of casts and models for the sculptor Roubiliac and began to learn his "trade" early in his father’s shop near Covent Garden. Thus, like Blake who began his career as an engraver’s apprentice, he came to "high art" through "craft". A delicate child who suffered from a curvature of the spine, he showed early promise in sculpture and won a silver medal at the Royal Academy schools in 1770 for his wax model of Neptune. For many years he pursued a career in what we would now call industrial design, working for Josiah Wedgwood. The reputation of the Wedgwood pottery for elegant design owed much in its early years to the efforts of its most distinguished artist, John Flaxman. In 1782 Flaxman married Ann Denman whom he had long known and loved. Hearing that he was married, Sir Joshua Reynolds, the first President of the Royal Academy, told him that he was "ruined for an artist". John went home and told Ann. She asked him how was he ruined. "It happened in the church," he replied, "and Ann Denman has done it…".

He first met Blake in 1779. They found that they were kindred spirits with many things in common. Although he is known chiefly as an artist in the Neo-Classical style, Flaxman venerated Gothic art (as Blake did). He wrote later of the tombs in Westminster Abbey (which had such a formative influence on Blake’s artistic development) that they were "specimens of the magnificence of such works of the age…which forcibly direct the attention and turn the thoughts not only to other ages, but to other states of existence". It was about this time that Flaxman first became acquainted with the religious writings of Emanuel Swedenborg (either in the original Latin, he studied this language sitting on a stool in his father’s shop, or in one of the very early English translations). He may have first learned of Swedenborg from his friend William Hayley, the gentleman scholar who was later to invite Blake to come and stay near him at Felpham in Sussex. There is a letter to Hayley from Flaxman of 10th February 1784 in which the latter asks him "when you have a favourable opportunity" to let him have Swedenborg. In that year Flaxman became a member of a small Swedenborg study group which was called rather grandly "the Theosophical Society, instituted for the purpose of promoting the Heavenly Doctrines of the New Jerusalem, by translating, printing and publishing the Theological Writings of Emanuel Swedenborg". Other members were: Robert Hindmarsh, printer extraordinary to the Prince of Wales and later one of the driving forces behind the establishment of the New Church as a distinct and separate religious denomination; John Augustus Tulk, another founder of the New Church and later of the Swedenborg Society who became a firm friend of Flaxman; the engraver William Sharpe; the painter Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg (who had designed stage sets for David Garrick); and another Frenchman, the composer F H Barthelemon ( a friend of Joseph Haydn). It is interesting to note that such men, influential in the cultural life of the day, were early readers of Swedenborg.

Blake was not a member of this group, but it is likely that it was Flaxman who introduced him to Swedenborg’s writings some time during the 1780’s. Blake made his own marginal notes ( the comments are quite favourable) on a copy of "Divine Love and Wisdom" in 1788 and he and his wife actually attended the first Conference of the New Church, held in London in April 1789. They were numbers 13 and 14 of the sixty or so present! Flaxman was not involved in the establishment of the church (a very embryonic organisation at that time). He and his wife left for Rome (an important step in the development of an ambitious artist in those days) in 1787 and they stayed there until 1794. Flaxman already had a formidable reputation as a sculptor. One of the greatest of his early works (executed in 1785) is the monument to Sarah Morley in Gloucester Cathedral. This commemorates a young woman who had died in childbirth during the long sea voyage home from India. She and her baby were buried at sea and the iconography (showing angels greeting the young mother and baby rising from the sea clothed in spiritual bodies that resemble their earthly ones) already reflects Flaxman’s Swedenborgian beliefs.

While in Italy he drew his illustrations (much influenced by Greek vase painting) to the Iliad and the Odyssey and also to Dante’s Divine Comedy. His much later illustrations to Hesiod were engraved by Blake. These illustrations were much admired by the French Neo-Classical artists Jacques Louis David and Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres and it is these drawings, rather than his sculpture, that were the foundation of his European reputation. Flaxman’s monuments to the poet William Collins (in Chichester Cathedral) and the jurist Lord Mansfield (in Westminster Abbey) were commissioned while he was in Italy. He was to become sculptor to the "Establishment" of the day with his grand monuments to Nelson (in St. Paul’s Cathedral) and to William Pitt the Younger (in Glasgow). But it is his smaller work, often cut in low relief, which is perhaps his most attractive and characteristic. Of particular note is the monument to Mary Blackshaw (née Lushington) in St.Mary’s Church, Lewisham. This depicts a prostrate mother weeping for her daughter while an angel points towards heaven. There is an epitaph by Hayley and the iconography seems strongly Swedenborgian. The style is certainly Greek, but the flowing lines of the figure suggest the influence of Blake.

Not long after his return from Italy, Flaxman joined a New Church congregation established at Cross Street, Hatton Garden under the Rev.Joseph Proud in 1797. He was a conscientious member of this church and served on the governing committee, but ceased to worship there when sectarian squabbling caused the break-up of the congregation. His affection for Swedenborg’s religious writings, however, remained with him for the remainder of his life and he was one founding members of this Society when it was established in February 1810. Despite Flaxman’s fame and the demands on him as a sculptor, he found time to attend meetings of the Swedenborg Society and served on the governing committee in 1811, 1815 and 1817. He remained a member of the Society until his death in 1826. It is recorded that in 1816 he "took occasion very forcibly and feelingly to expatiate upon the objects of the Society" and in 1817 "interested the Society by an affectionate and imaginative address in furtherance of our great cause". He once told Henry Crabb Robinson the diarist and lawyer that until he read Swedenborg’s explanation of the Scriptures "they were to him a painful mystery". Of his illustrated poem, The Knight of the Blazing Cross, the Rev. John Clowes (Anglican clergyman, translator of Swedenborg and another founder of this Society) wrote that, "The Church, especially the new Church, would at once be delighted and instructed by its rich contents". Flaxman executed a tablet commemorating the fiftieth year of Clowes’s ministry as Rector of St.John’s Church, Deansgate, Manchester in 1819.

Flaxman was sometimes thought to be a little solemn. His fellow artist Henry Fuseli announced on the occasion of Flaxman’s first lecture as Professor of Sculpture at the Royal Academy, "Farewell, friends; farewell, wine; farewell wit. I must leave you all and hear sermon, the first preached by the Rev. John Flaxman." Fuseli was perhaps being flippant. Flaxman was a modest man lacking all pomposity and he was known as a loyal friend. To the family of his Swedenborgian friend Charles Augustus Tulk (son of John Augustus) he "was ever a welcome guest to our family, for he brought with him such an atmosphere of innocent wisdom, that he could not fail to charm, but also ennoble". Nor did he lack a sense of humour. On a visit to the Tulks, one of the sons brought Flaxman pencil and paper and asked him to draw. (A number of Flaxman drawings of the Tulk family are still extant.) The boy also offered him an India rubber. "Thank you, my dear," said Flaxman, "I shall not want the Indian rubber."

In one of his lectures Flaxman wrote that: "The most perfect human beauty is that most free from deformity either of body or mind, and may be therefore defined, the most perfect soul in the most perfect body".

It was Flaxman who did much to arrange Blake’s three year stay at Felpham on the Sussex coast (the only time Blake and his wife ever lived outside London). In his first letter from Felpham, ecstatically describing the delights of sea and fresh air, Blake addressed Flaxman as "Dear Sculptor of Eternity". When Blake was accused of sedition for apparently insulting a soldier who had trespassed on his garden, Flaxman was one of those who helped to organise his successful defence. In later years their relationship was not so close and there was for a time a serious falling out between the two men. Blake wrote of what he considered to be Flaxman’s ill usage:

"I mock thee not, tho’ by thee am Mocked. Thou callst me Madman but I call thee blockhead."

That was most unfair to Flaxman. He never considered him to be mad. Early on he recognised the nature of Blake’s genius and was a great admirer of his art and poetry and a loyal supporter of this great, but difficult man. Flaxman introduced Charles Augustus Tulk to Blake and Tulk bought several of his works and became a steady patron in Blake’s later years. He introduced Samuel Taylor Coleridge to Songs of Innocence and Experience, then virtually unknown to the reading public, and after Blake’s death wrote the first critical appreciation of his work in an article which appeared the London University Magazine.

The death of Ann in 1820 was a major blow to Flaxman. He spent much time in the company of his sister-in-law, Maria Denman, who many years later established the Flaxman Gallery in University College, London in Gower Street. He died on the 7th December 1826 after developing an inflammation of the lungs following a severe cold. Crabb Robinson called on Blake to break the news. Blake, who had been seriously ill that summer, remarked that he thought he should have gone first. Then, as Crabb Robinson recorded, Blake said, "I cannot think of Death as more than the going out of one room into another". "And Flaxman was no longer thought of", adds Robinson.

A few days later Sir Thomas Lawrence, the famous portrait painter, delivered this eulogy:

"His life was simple and blameless. He was mild and gentle; and a more perfect exemplar of the good man was to be found in his conduct than in all the theories of the learned. Peace be with his memory, in his own small circle of affection; enduring pain, but full of meekness, gratitude, and faith."

John Flaxman was an outstanding artist and an outstanding New Church man. We in this Society can be justly proud that he was one of our founders. A revival of his reputation as an artist is long overdue.

Published in Things Heard and Seen, the Newsletter of the Swedenborg Society, London, No. 3 (Autumn 2000) pp. 25-27.


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