John Flaxman was a British sculptor and draughtsman, and a leading figure in British and European Neoclassicism. Early in his career he worked as a modeller for Josiah Wedgwood's pottery. He spent several years in Rome.
John was born in York. He had little schooling, and was largely self-educated. He took delight in drawing and modelling from his father's stock-in-trade. At the age of 12 Flaxman won the first prize of the Society of Arts for a medallion, and at 15 he won a second prize from the Society of Arts showed at the Royal Academy for the first time. In the same year, 1770, he entered the Academy as a student and won the silver medal. In the competition for the gold medal of the Academy in 1772, however, Flaxman was defeated, the prize being awarded by the president, Sir Joshua Reynolds, to a competitor named Engleheart.
He continued to work diligently, both as a student and as an exhibitor at the Academy, with occasional attempts at painting. From 1775 he was employed by the potter Josiah Wedgwood and his partner Bentley, modelling reliefs for use on the company's jasperware and basaltware. By 1780 Flaxman had also begun to earn money by sculpting grave monuments. During the rest of Flaxman's career memorial bas-reliefs of this type made up the bulk of his output, and are to be found in many churches throughout England. In 1782, aged 27, Flaxman married Anne Denman, who was to assist him throughout his career.
In 1787, Flaxman and his wife and set off for Rome. His activities in the city included supervising a group of modellers employed by Wedgwood. While in Rome he began producing the book illustrations for which he was to become famous, and which promoted his influence all over Europe. Flaxman created one hundred and eleven illustrations to Dante's Divine Comedy which served as an inspiration for such artists as Goya and Ingres, and were used as an academic source for 19th-century art students.
During their homeward journey, the Flaxmans travelled through central and northern Italy. On their return they took a house in Buckingham Street, Fitzroy Square. The rest of Flaxman's life was uneventful, and his work brought sufficient rewards and a good reputation, being praised by Antonio Canova, Schlegel and Henry Fuseli. In 1797 he was made an associate of the Royal Academy. Every year he exhibited work at the Academy.
Most of the carving of his works was executed by assistants; Margaret Whinney thought that, as a result "the execution of some of his marbles is a little dull" but "his plaster models, cast from his own designs in clay, frequently show more sensitive handling". Early in his career, Flaxman would make his works in the form of small models which his assistants would scale up when making the marble version. In many cases, this proved problematic, and for his later works he produced full-sized plaster versions for his employees to work from.
In 1800 he was elected a full Academician, and in 1810 he was appointmented Professor of Sculpture, a post specially created for him by the Royal Academy. In 1820 Flaxman's wife died. Her younger sister, Maria Denman, and his own sister, Maria Flaxman, continued to live with him, and he continued to work hard. In 1826, he caught cold in church, and died four days later, aged 71.