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John Flaxman

Line to Contour

13 February — 21 April 2013

Ikon presents the work of John Flaxman (1755–1826), a leading exponent of British Neoclassicism, renowned during his lifetime for minimally drawn illustrations of stories from ancient Greece. Curated by eminent art historian David Bindman, this exhibition consists almost entirely of drawings and plaster models for sculpture from UCL Art Museum at University College London.

Having learnt the techniques of sculpting in his father’s plaster-cast workshop, Flaxman began his own career as a designer for Josiah Wedgwood’s world-famous pottery. Two medals were manufactured at the Soho Mint in Birmingham during this time, which also saw the unveiling of his monument to influential industrialist Matthew Boulton in Handsworth Church. His impact on British manufacture continued for some decades, with many of his outline designs from the 1770s and 1780s continuing to be used throughout the Victorian period.

In 1787 Flaxman travelled to Rome where he stayed for seven years, producing his most famous works including engravings for publications of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Dante’s Divine Comedy and The Tragedies of Aeschylus. Instantly successful, they were universally acknowledged to have captured the very essence of Homeric Greece and medieval Italy. Line to Contour includes preliminary drawings for these works, alongside later illustrations modelled on Roman street scenes. Outline studies of male figures in cloaks and a famous sketch of a woman shaking a cloth out of a window are distinctive in their stylistic purity, reduced to a few essential lines.

On returning to London, Flaxman worked on numerous sculptural commissions for major public monuments as well as smaller funerary monuments produced for churches including St Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey. His workshop was extensive, with the artist often confining himself to drawings and plaster models, leaving others to create the final marbles. These often commemorated the dead with affecting simplicity, placing emphasis on feelings of loss rather than a celebration of lifetimes’ achievements. Plaster models, representing the first or second stage in the process of production, sometimes preceded by sketches, feature in the exhibition. Like most of the drawings they have rarely been seen and give us an extraordinary insight into the thinking that led to the artist’s more formal output.

Exhibition Supporters: UCL Art Museum acknowledges the financial support of UCL and the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

A catalogue accompanies the exhibition priced £15. It includes an essay by David Bindman, Emeritus Professor of the History of Art, University College London, detailing the main themes of the exhibition and including photographs of Flaxman’s sculptures.