John Flaxman Jr (1755-1826)

John Flaxman Jr was probably the most significant artist employed by Josiah Wedgwood during his lifetime. He had a significant impact on the factory's designs, many of which are today considered the finest examples of Josiah's output.

An English artist, sculptor and designer born in York, Flaxman Jr was the son of a modeller and maker of plaster casts, also called John. The family moved to Covent Garden, London, in 1756. Ten years later, when only 11, Flaxman Jr - a sickly boy with congenital curvature of the spine - won a premium from the Society of Arts, later the Royal Society of Arts. Three years later he enrolled as one of the first students of the newly founded Royal Academy Schools. He exhibited at the Academy for the first time in 1770, and within a year had come to the attention of Josiah Wedgwood.

John Flaxman Sr supplied Wedgwood with models for so-called wine and water ewers, occasionally described as Sacred to Bacchus and Sacred to Neptune, in 1775. The same year his son began to provide models and designs, ideally suited to the white reliefs Josiah used on his fine jasper pieces, to the Wedgwood factory. Most were first modelled in wax onto slate or glass grounds before being cast for production. Many subjects for these bas reliefs were taken directly from classically-inspired themes, inspired by Baron D'Hancarville's engravings of Sir William Hamilton's collection of vases which Wedgwood had in his library. They were used on ornamental wares such as vases, useful wares such as coffee or teapots, or on architectural plaques.

The Apotheosis of Homer relief (1778), later used for a vase, and Hercules in the Garden of Hesperides (1785) were two of his most successful designs. Flaxman also supplied a huge range of small-sized bas-reliefs for use by the firm; The Dancing Hours (1776-8) was perhaps the most popular. Flaxman's skill as a sculptor meant he could produce excellent likenesses of his subjects and he provided models for  numerous portrait medallions in three-quarters view, the most difficult to achieve. He depicted himself and his wife with realistic sensitivity. He also designed the plaque commemorating the French Commercial Treaty of 1786, which so concerned Josiah.

His library bust of Mercury (1781) was one of the factory's finest, and Flaxman's set of chess pieces, modelled c1783, demonstrates he could work equally well on small-scale three-dimensional subjects. They were still in production, in different bodies, some 100 years later.

In 1787 Flaxman went to Rome, partly sponsored by Wedgwood, to do modelling and supervise the Wedgwood school in Rome. He stayed seven years, but after producing only a couple of designs for Wedgwood he worked on his own projects, the most successful of which were the illustrations he produced for the works of Homer and Dante. These used a flat linear style, for which Flaxman became known and imitated; his experience of creating the bas reliefs for Wedgwood gave him a deep understanding of the effectiveness of such a style.

When he returned to London, in 1794, Flaxman concentrated on monumental sculptures. It was fitting, however, that following his friend Josiah's death in 1795,  he created the Wedgwood memorial in St Peter ad Vincula, Stoke-on-Trent's parish church.







John Flaxman Jr, portrait by John Jackson; early 19th century, © Wedgwood Museum

John Flaxman Jr, portrait by John Jackson; early 19th century
© Wedgwood Museum

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