- Museum number
Portrait of John Flaxman, R A; half-length seated in profile to right
- Production date
Height: 231 millimetres
Width: 190 millimetres
- Curator's comments
- The following text is from S. Lloyd and K. Sloan, 'The Intimate Portrait' (exh. SNPG & BM, 2008-9), cat. no. 90:
John 'Rainy Day' Smith boasted that he was born in a Hackney cab. He was the son of Nathaniel Smith, a sculptor who was the assistant to Joseph Nollekens before becoming a print dealer. Smith trained for a while as an engraver and through his father's business was familiar with many London collections; he was also an engraver and became a successful topographical draughtsman, particularly of antiquities and ruins, before turning to portraiture in London from around 1795. In 1816, after much lobbying on his own behalf, he succeeded William Alexander as Keeper of the Prints and Drawings in the British Museum.
This drawing of the sculptor John Flaxman (1755-1826) appears to be from life, the distinctive profile the same as other images of the sculptor but Flaxman was quite bald on the top of his head from the late 1780s. This is evident from his self- portrait medallion done in Italy for Wedgwood (London 1979, no. 53) or the pastel portrait and drawing of c.1791 (both York City Art Gallery) executed by his friend in Rome, Archibald Skirving. Self-portraits by Flaxman from 1779, both drawings and in relief, show him with hair covering his forehead (London 1979, nos. 3,4), but in another his hair is off his face and his hairline shows signs that it was high and beginning to recede (London 1979, no. 2). This would seem to indicate Smith's portrait was made in the later 1780s, before Flaxman left for Rome in 1787.
During this decade, Flaxman, who was the son of a cast maker who worked for Roubiliac, Scheemakers and his pupil Nollekens, was working as a modeller for Wedgwood, designing church monuments and exhibiting at the RA. He would probably have know J. T. Smith from the time the latter began to work for Nollekens in 1779, running errands for him, preparing clay and getting to know the sculptors of the day. Smith's talents lay more in drawing that modelling and he soon left to study engraving before joining his father in his print shop in 1784. Smith's watercolour portrait of his friend captures his physical characteristics without exaggerating them (Flaxman was sickly, small and slightly-hunchbacked) and by focussing the light on his features, communicates something of the sculptor's intelligence and sensitivity, qualities that were imparted to his work. When comparing Nollekens' drawings to Flaxman's he noted that 'they are not executed with any thing like the feeling with which Flaxman drew; and when compared with his Italian studies, also made from some of the same antiques, they fall short of the mind visible in every thing Flaxman touched, even in his earliest years' (Smith 1828, p. 272). Smith remained an ardent admirer of Flaxman's works for the rest of his life, mentioning him frequently in Nollekens and his times: 'That great and good man, Flaxman, the 'Sculptor of Eternity', as Blake styled him, was often called 'little Flaxman, the Sculptor', though there was no other Flaxman a Sculptor. Indeed, I was going to say, nor ever will be…' (p.101).
SELECTED LITERATURE: LB 2; J.T. Smith, ‘Nollekens and His Times’, 1828; D. Bindman (ed.), ‘John Flaxman, RA’, London, 1979; L. Peltz, 'John Thomas Smith', Oxford DNB
A further portrait of Flaxman, by Ozias Humphry, c. 1794-97, in pastel and holding a pair of scultptor's callipers, is in the Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight, one of a series Humphry executed of artists in this medium during this period; see J. Feather, British Watercolours in the Leverhulme collection, 2010, p. 119. There is an oil of him modelling the bust of William Hayley, from a similar date, by Romney, in the Yale Center for British Art.
- Not on display
- Exhibition history
1957 P&D, 'William Blake and his circle', no.64(1)
2008/9 Oct-Jan, Edinburgh, SNPG, 'The Intimate Portrait', no. 90
2009 Mar-May, London, BM, Room 90, 'The Intimate Portrait', no. 90
2018, 15 May-22 July, BM, G90a, Flaxman display
- Acquisition date
- Acquisition notes
- Thibaudeau acted as an agent for the British Museum at the Russell sale in December 1884, see 1885,0509.1574-1607 which are described in the Register as 'Purchased at the Russell sale, M. Thibaudeau comm[issioned]'. Some of the other drawings Thibaudeau purchased at the same sale were subsequently sold to the British Museum in 1885; see 1885,0509.33-51 and 1885,0711.271-303.
- Prints and Drawings
- Registration number