Past Exhibitions

John Flaxman 1755-1826: Master of the Purest Line

An Exhibition at Sir John Soane's Museum and the Strang Print Room UCL from 25 April to 14 June 2003

Supported by the Henry Moore Foundation

John Flaxman, a friend and contemporary of John Soane, was the first British sculptor to achieve a major international reputation. In his time, the early 19th century, his work was hugely admired both in Britain and on the Continent. He was responsible for some of the most famous monuments in St Paul's Cathedral, to Nelson and others, but he was equally renowned for his designs for Wedgwood pottery and for his illustrations to classic authors like Dante and Homer. His work ranges from gigantic monuments to celebrities to touching single-figure memorial slabs for ordinary people. This exhibition, the first on Flaxman since 1979, aims to show why he is regarded by some as the greatest British sculptor of his age. The exhibition curator is David Bindman, one of England's most distinguished art historians.

Soane and Flaxman enjoyed a long friendship, first meeting as students at the Royal Academy. In the last few years of his life Soane acquired for his Museum a large number of plaster casts from Flaxman's studio via the sculptor's sister-in-law, also the source for the models and drawings in the collection at University College London. It is, therefore, wholly appropriate that John Flaxman: Master of the Purest Line is a unique collaboration between the Soane Museum and UCL, with displays at each institution. The Strang Print Room at UCL focuses on Flaxman's monument designs, drawing together models and original drawings, whilst the Soane Gallery will house a stunning collection of Flaxman's works on paper.

The drawings in the Soane Gallery, many never before been exhibited, are drawn from the Strang collection and augmented by works from the Royal Academy, the Soane Museum and Private Collections. A significant number of these drawings date from Flaxman's time in Rome (1788-94) and are characterised by a remarkable freedom of line. They show how Flaxman gradually refined and reduced the elements of the human form to produce his unique neo-classical outline style.

The Soane display includes a selection of Flaxman's original designs for illustrations to works by Homer, Aeschylus, Hesiod and Dante together with the published volumes (some extremely rare). It was these illustrations that made the artist a household name throughout Europe. The climax of the Soane Gallery exhibition will be the maker's plaster model for the celebrated silvergilt Shield of Achilles (now in the Royal Collection), a reminder that Flaxman's illustrative work was widely adapted as decoration for ceramics and silverware. In addition to the exhibition a special information sheet is provided on the many other Flaxman works in the permanent collection.

The exhibition is linked through a 'Flaxman Trail' (with free leaflet) to Flaxman monuments and sculpture at the Royal Academy, St Paul's Cathedral, Westminster Abbey and elsewhere in London.

Catalogue available from Museum shop

The catalogue was Shortlisted for The Art Newspaper & Axa Art Exhibition Catalogue Award 2003