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The Ancient Drama and the Modern Drama

  • Object:

    Models

  • Place of origin:

    England (made)

  • Date:

    1809 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Flaxman, John, born 1755 - died 1826 (maker)

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Plaster

  • Credit Line:

    Given by Mr H Barrs- Davies

  • Museum number:

    A.8-1968

  • Gallery location:

    Sculpture, Room 22, The Dorothy and Michael Hintze Galleries, case SWAL

In 1809 Flaxman was commissioned to produce two stone friezes for the façade of the Covent Garden Theatre (by the architect Robert Smirke), now the site of the Royal Opera House. These four reliefs are the models for those friezes. They depict characters associated with the Ancient and Modern theatre. The Greek dramatist Aristophanes is portrayed in one relief, and William Shakespeare in another. These pieces were among the first works of British sculpture to be directly influenced by the Parthenon marbles, which had been brought to Britain from Athens, by Lord Elgin, in 1807. Flaxman inspected the marbles, which are today housed in the British Museum, at Lord Elgin's house soon after their arrival in England.
Of his non-funerary commissions, perhaps Flaxman's most influential work is that for the Covent Garden Theatre.

John Flaxman (1755-1826) was an English sculptor, designer and teacher. He was the most famous English Neo-classical sculptor of the late 18th century and the early 19th. He focused on monumental sculpture and church monuments and portrait busts. A large collection of his plaster models is held in the Strang Print Room, University College, London. He also made outline illustrations of Homer, Aeschylus and Dante. Many of those in his sketchbooks (now in the V&A) were drawn from the antique while he was in Italy. Furthermore he produced models for pottery and silver supplying the pottery manufacturer Josiah Wedgwood among others. He thus can be considered as an important pioneer in the development of Industrial Design.

Physical description

Relief, plaster. The left half of the frieze represents Greek Comedy and the right Greek Tragedy. In the centre, facing left, are seated figures of Aristophanes and Menander, masters of Greek Comedy. In front of them stands Thalia, the Comic Muse with her mask and shepherds crook, while behind her, moving in procession are Polyhymnia, Euterpe and Clio, playing musical instruments and Terpsichore dancing. At the end, facing outwards are three nymphs crowned with pine cones, representing the Hours and Seasons, who attend the winged horse Pegasus, a symbol of immortality. The seated figure in the centre facing right is Aeschylus, the greatest of Greek tragedians, his attention fixed on Athena in her role as Wisdom, while between them is Bacchus leaning on his faun, for the Greeks represented tragedis in his honour. Behind Athena stands Melpomene, the Muse of Tragedy, holding her mask, and then a scene facing outwards. This which is taken from the Orestes of Eschylus, shows two Furied pursuing Orestes who flees for protection towards the chariot of Apollo.

Place of Origin

England (made)

Date

1809 (made)

Artist/maker

Flaxman, John, born 1755 - died 1826 (maker)

Materials and Techniques

Plaster

Dimensions

Height: 39.1 cm inner frame, Length: 185.4 cm inner frame, Height: 48.3 cm frame, Length: 194.9 cm frame

Object history note

Given by Mr Barrs-Davies in 1968.
Formerly in the possession of the donor's great-grandfather, the sculptor Henry Westmacott and by descent to his son the sculptor James Sherwood Westmacott. By descent to Mr H. Barrs-Davies and given by him to the Museum in 1968.

Descriptive line

Model, frieze, plaster, representing Greek tragedy from the ancient drama on the theatre at Covent Garden, by John Flaxman, England, 1809

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Irwin, David. John Flaxman 1755- 1826. Sculpture, Illustrator, Designer', London, Studia Vista, 1979, ill. nos. 238 and 239
Whinney, M and Gunnis, R, The Collection of Models by John Flaxman at University College London, 1967, p. 60, 61 and pl. 21
Gentleman's Magazine, 79, ii, 1809, p. 880
Smith, A.H. 'Lord Elgin and his Collection', Journal of Hellenic Studies, xxxvi, 1916, p. 298.
Bilbey, Diane with Trusted, Marjorie. British Sculpture 1470 to 2000. A Concise Catalogue of the Collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 2002, pp. 82, 83, cat., no. 113

Materials

Plaster

Subjects depicted

Faun; Chariot; Pegasus

Categories

Sculpture; Myths & Legends

Collection

Sculpture Collection

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