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Relief frieze - Frieze, The Ancient Drama and the Modern Drama.
  • Frieze, The Ancient Drama and the Modern Drama.
    Flaxman, John, born 1755 - died 1826
  • Enlarge image

Frieze, The Ancient Drama and the Modern Drama.

  • Object:

    Relief frieze

  • Place of origin:

    England (made)

  • Date:

    1809 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Flaxman, John, born 1755 - died 1826 (designer)
    Rossi, John Charles Felix RA, born 1762 - died 1839 (maker)

  • Materials and Techniques:


  • Credit Line:

    Given by H. Barrs-Davies

  • Museum number:


  • Gallery location:

    British Galleries, Room 120, The Wolfson Galleries, case 8

Object Type
This is a cast from the model for one of the friezes John Flaxman was commissioned to design for the façade for Covent Garden Theatre in 1809. The friezes were cut in stone by John Charles Rossi (1762-1839). Although the building was damaged by fire in 1856, the friezes were saved, and inserted in the new building designed by E. M. Barry (1830-1880). This plaster frieze was once owned by the sculptor James Sherwood Westmacott (1823-1900), whose grandson donated it to the V&A in 1968.

Subject Depicted
This half of the frieze represents Ancient Tragedy: the Greek dramatist Aeschylus is seated on the left; next to him stands Bacchus with a faun, then the seated and helmeted Athena. Melpomene; the Muse of Tragedy stands behind. Two Furies pursue Orestes, who flees for protection towards the chariot of Apollo. The friezes are among the first works of art made in Britain to show the influence of the Parthenon marbles, which Flaxman had inspected at the Park Lane home of Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, in 1807. Elgin had recently acquired these marbles in Athens and shipped them to London. Apollo's chariot and horses on the right of this plaster cast are particularly reminiscent of the Elgin marbles.

John Flaxman (1755-1826) was one of the most important British artists of the late 18th century and early 19th, and the only sculptor to whom Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792) dedicated one of his celebrated Royal Academy Lectures. Flaxman was the son of a sculptor and demonstrated his skill as an artist from an early age. He enrolled at the Royal Academy Schools in 1770, and in 1775 worked alongside his father for the potter Josiah Wedgwood (1730-1795), designing cameos, reliefs and friezes for ceramic production. In 1787 he went to Rome, where he was to spend seven years, studying and working on commissions for British patrons. On his return he exhibited regularly at the Royal Academy, and executed a large number of church monuments. He was also commissioned by George IV to make drawings for the exterior of Buckingham Palace and the Marble Arch.

Materials & Making
This plaster was cast from one of the models for the finished frieze in stone. For a large-scale piece of decorative architectural sculpture, the initial design would be a drawing. Subsequently this might be roughed out on a small scale in clay, or sometimes wax, and a plaster cast taken from this. The small-scale plaster could then be enlarged to the finished size, either in plaster, which would then be used for transfer of the composition to marble, or direct to the marble.

Physical description

Frieze, plaster. From left to right, Aschylus, Bacchus and Athena, Melpomene the Muse of Tragedy, two furies pursuing Orestes and the Chariot of Apollo.

Place of Origin

England (made)


1809 (made)


Flaxman, John, born 1755 - died 1826 (designer)
Rossi, John Charles Felix RA, born 1762 - died 1839 (maker)

Materials and Techniques



Height: 48.3 cm, Width: 190.8 cm, Weight: 40 kg approx.

Object history note

Designed by John Flaxman (1755-1826); executed by John Charles Rossi (1762-1839).
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

Relief frieze, plaster, The ancient drama and the modern drama, John Flaxman, 1809.

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

D. Bilbey and M. Trusted, British Sculpture 1470-2000, London, 2002, cat. no. 114 on p. 83, with earlier literature.
Whinney, Margaret. English Sculpture 1720-1830, London, HMSO, 1971, p.140.

Labels and date

British Galleries:
The sculptor John Flaxman designed this frieze, representing Ancient Drama, shortly after seeing the marbles brought to London from the Parthenon in Athens by Lord Elgin. Apollo, the Greek god of the Arts, is shown on the right with Athene, goddess of Wisdom, on the left. [27/03/2003]



Subjects depicted

Chariot; Tragedy




Sculpture Collection

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