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LIFE OF FLAXMAN.
John Flaxman was a true genius—one of the greatest artists England has yet produced. He was, besides, a person of beautiful character, his life furnishing many salutary lessons for men of all ranks. Flaxman was the son of a humble seller of plaster-casts
a in New Street, Covent Garden ; and when a child, he was so constant an invalid, that it was his custom to sit behind the shop-counter propped by pillows, amusing himself with drawing and reading. A benevolent clergyman, named Matthews, one day calling at the shop, found the boy trying to read a book; and on inquiring what it was, said that was not the proper book for him to read, but that he would bring him a right one on the morrow; and the kind man was as good as his word. The Rev. Mr Matthews used afterwards to say, that from that casual interview with the cripple little invalid behind the plaster-cast seller's shop-counter, began an acquaintance which ripened into one of the best friendships of his life. He brought several books to the boy, amongst which were Homer and Don Quixote, in both of which Flaxman, then and ever after, took immense delight. His mind was soon full of the heroism which breathed through the pages of the former work; his black chalk was at once in his hand, and the enthusiastic boy laboured to body forth, in sensible shapes, the actions of the Greeks and Trojans.
Like all youthful efforts, his first designs were crude. The proud father one day shewed them to a sculptor, who turned from them with a contemptuous ‘Pshaw ! But the boy had the right stuff in him-he had industry and
patience; and he continued to labour incessantly at his books and drawings. He then tried his young powers in modelling figures in plaster of Paris, wax, and clay. Some of these early works are still preserved—not because of their merit, but because they are curious as the first healthy efforts of patient genius. The boy was long before he could walk, and he only learned to do so by hobbling along upon crutches. When afterwards reminded of these early pursuits, he remarked : “We are never too young to learn what is useful, nor too old to grow wise and good.'
His physical health improving, the little Flaxman threw away his crutches. The kind Mr Matthews invited him to his house, where his wife explained Homer and Milton to him. They helped him also in his self-culture, giving him lessons in Greek and Latin. When under Mrs Matthews, he also attempted, with his bit of charcoal, to embody in outline on paper such passages as struck his fancy. His drawings could not, however, have been very extraordinary, for when he shewed a drawing of an eye which he had made to Mortimer, the artist, that gentleman, with affected surprise, exclaimed:
Is it an oyster ?' The sensitive boy was much hurt, and for a time took care to avoid shewing his drawings to artists. At length, by dint of perseverance and study, his drawing improved so much, that Mrs Matthews obtained a commission for him from a lady to draw six original drawings in black chalk of subjects in Homer. His first commission! The boy duly executed the order, and was both well praised and well paid for his work.
At fifteen, Flaxman entered a student at the Royal Academy. Notwithstanding his retiring disposition, he soon became known among the students, and great things
were expected of him. Nor were their expectations disappointed. In his fifteenth year, he gained the silver prize ; and next year, he became a candidate for the gold one. Everybody prophesied that he would carry off the medal, for there was none who surpassed him in ability and industry. The youth did his best, and in his after-life honestly affirmed that he deserved the prize, but he lost it, and the gold medal was adjudged to a lad who was not afterwards heard of. This failure on the part of the youth was really of service to him, for defeats do not long cast down the resolute-hearted, but only serve to call forth their real powers. Give me time,' said he to his father, and I will yet produce works that the Academy will be proud to recognise.' He redoubled his efforts, spared no pains, designed and modelled incessantly, and consequently made steady, if not rapid progress. But, meanwhile, poverty threatened his father's household; the plaster-cast trade yielded a very bare living; and young Flaxman, with resolute self-denial, curtailed his hours of study, and devoted himself to helping his father in the humble details of business. He laid aside his Homer to take up the plaster-trowel. He was willing to work in the humblest department of the trade, so that his father's family might be supported, and the wolf kept from the door. To this drudgery of his art, he served a long apprenticeship; but it did him good-it familiarised him with steady work, and cultivated in him the spirit of patience. The discipline may have been rough, but it was wholesome.
Happily, young Flaxman's skill in design had reached the knowledge of Mr Wedgewood, who sought him out for the purpose of employing him in designing improved patterns of china and earthenware, to be
produced at his manufactory. Before Wedgewood's time, the designs which figured upon our china and stoneware were hideous, both in design and execution, and he determined to improve both. Finding out Flaxman, he said to him : Well, my lad, I have heard that you are a good draughtsman and clever designer. I'm a manufacturer of pots, named Wedgewood. Now, I want you to design some models for me-nothing fantastic, but simple, tasteful, and correct in drawing. I'll pay you well. You don't think the work beneath you ?'
By no means, sir,' replied Flaxman ; indeed, the work is quite to my taste. Give me a few days; call again, and you will see what I can do.'
* That's right—work away! Mind, I am in want of them now. They are for pots of all kinds—teapots, jugs, teacups and saucers; but especially I want designs for a table-service. Begin with that. I mean to supply one for the royal table. Now, think of that, young man. What you design is meant for the eyes of royalty !'
'I will do my best, sir, I assure you.' And the kind gentleman bustled out of the shop as he had come in.
Flaxman did his best. By the time that Mr Wedgewood next called upon him, he had a numerous series of models prepared for various pieces of earthenware. They consisted chiefly of small groups in very low relief, the subjects taken from ancient verse and history. Many of them are still in existence, and some are equal in beauty and simplicity to his after-designs for marble.
Engaged in such labours as these, for several years Flaxman executed but few works of art, and these at rare intervals. He lived a quiet, secluded, and simple life, working during the day, and sketching and reading in the evenings. He was so poor, that he had as yet
been only able to find plaster of Paris for his works. Marble was too dear a material for him. He had hitherto executed only one statue in the latter material, and that was a commission.
At length, in the year 1782, when twenty-seven years of age, he quitted his father's roof, and rented a small house and studio in Wardour Street, Soho; and, what was more, he married-Ann Denham was the name of his wife—and a cheery, bright-souled, noble woman she was. He believed that in marrying her, he should be able to work with an intenser spirit, for, like him, she had a taste for poetry and art, and, besides, was an enthusiastic admirer of her husband's genius. Yet when Sir Joshua Reynolds—himself a bachelor—met Flaxman shortly after his marriage, he said to him : “So, Flaxman, I am told you are married ; if so, sir, I tell you, you are ruined for an artist !' Flaxman went straight home, sat down beside his wife, took her hand in his, and said : Ann, I am ruined for an artist.'
• How so, John? How has it happened? And who has done it?
It happened,' he replied, 'in the church, and Ann Denham has done it.' He then told her of Sir Joshua's remark, whose opinion was well known, and had been often expressed, that if students would excel, they must bring the whole powers of their mind to bear
their art, from the moment they rise until they go to bed; and also, that no man could be a great artist unless he studied the grand works of Raffaelle, Michael Angelo, and others, at Rome and Florence. And I,' said Flaxman, drawing up his little figure to its full height='I would be a great artist.'
* And a great artist you shall be,' said his wife, and