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1801 Flaxman's Model Monument

In August 1918, three months before the end of the First World War, The Spectator magazine made an unusual proposal. Thoughts had already turned to commemoration of the dead, including the 15,000 merchant seamen who had lost their lives maintaining British supply lines during the war. To honour their sacrifice, The Spectator argued that the country needed a monument, “conspicuous in the eyes of the nation” and visible to every visitor to the Port of London.1 But rather than advocating a new design competition for this monument, the magazine pointed out that a suitable prototype already existed.

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In 1801, more than one hundred years earlier, John Flaxman had exhibited a “sketch” at the Royal Academy for a colossal sculpture of Britannia Triumphant.2 Britannia was Flaxman’s entry for a competition launched in 1799 for a 230-foot pillar to commemorate the British naval victory over France in the Battle of the Nile.3 Instead of a column or obelisk, Flaxman proposed a 130-foot statue of Britannia on a 100-foot pedestal decorated with national heroes and trophies. Unlike previous monuments to martial victories, Flaxman’s Britannia was an abstract personification of the nation rather than a specific paean to a great leader.4 Modelled on ancient images of the warrior goddess Minerva, Britannia embodied the growing empire’s aspirations to longevity as well as power.5

Flaxman’s Britannia was a utopian idea that never took on a definitive, finished form. Nevertheless, the idea was circulated on smaller scales in varied media. Britannia was first publicly revealed in a pamphlet published in 1799, in which Flaxman argued that a “fine human figure” could stir more “sentiment and interest” than an abstract architectural form, “especially when that figure represents the protecting Power or Genius of the Country.”6 The pamphlet included etchings by William Blake depicting Britannia in her proposed situation on Greenwich Hill (Fig. 1). Two years later, in 1801, Flaxman exhibited his three-dimensional model of Britannia, now holding a trident instead of a spear, at the Academy (Fig. 2).7 For some commentators, the idea of inflating Britannia to colossal proportions rendered the sculpture laughable: one wag reportedly quipped that: “there is to be a show at Greenwich of little Flaxman and big Britannia.”8 This comment came closer to the truth than Flaxman might have liked to admit: there was indeed a show in 1801, but while the scene was set in Greenwich, the theatre itself was the Academy.

By the time of the Academy exhibition, it was clear that the scheme for the naval pillar was faltering: the money raised by the appeal for public subscriptions was not enough to fund proposals of such vast ambition. But Flaxman was not only concerned with the outcome of this particular competition. The chances of his winning were slim, and the odds of the necessary budget being procured were even slimmer.9 Flaxman published and exhibited his design to broadcast his involvement in the project of glorifying the nation, even if that project did not come to fruition. Flaxman was not the only artist to rely on the Academy, as well as on publishers, to propagate ideas for works that would never be completed. Unlike painters, most architects and sculptors struggled to receive remuneration for large-scale projects, whose execution relied on unpredictable patrons, government support, public subscriptions, and armies of masons and surveyors. An enormous amount of time and labour—both conceptual and manual—could be expended on a design for a competition or a potential client, but if the final work was not commissioned, the artist might not be paid. The Academy provided a crucial forum within which such designs could receive public exposure and raise the profile of their maker.

However, the setting that the Academy provided for Flaxman’s model was hardly adequate to his aspirations. In 1801, sculpture and architecture were displayed in the Model Room at Somerset House, where Britannia jostled for space with designs by C.R. Cockerell, John Nash, and John Soane, alongside architectural views, busts, and a smattering of flower paintings and wax portraits. In the pages of The Monthly Magazine, a frustrated “Amateur in Architecture” claimed that the dominance of portrait painters in the Academy had condemned the work of architects to a dark, cluttered, and incoherent display:

Mere painters, from their unacquaintedness with architecture, judge of its merits only by its approximity to the effects of their own branch of art. … Sober designs uniting taste and discrimination, and executed with the nicest attention, are treated as laborious trifles, and placed where they cannot have their merits estimated.10

It is hard to imagine many sculptors disagreeing with this assessment. Their monochrome works—many of which were models for high-minded public sculptures or tomb monuments—were relegated to the poky Model Room, while brightly coloured portraits cavorted on the walls of the Great Room upstairs.11 Sculpture was rarely discussed by reviewers, partly because the Model Room came at the end of most visitors’ itineraries.12 Models like Flaxman’s Britannia may have highlighted the inadequacy of this arrangement and galvanised the dissatisfaction of both sculptors and architects.

In 1811, a decade after Britannia was shown at the Academy, distinct display spaces were finally accorded to sculpture and architecture at the annual exhibition. This change came on the heels of Flaxman’s appointment as the Academy’s first Professor of Sculpture in 1810. Flaxman used his inaugural address to explain that, while sculpture had played a subsidiary role in the institution’s early years, his Professorship had become necessary once “native achievements had called on the powers of native Sculpture to celebrate British Heroes and Patriots.”13 At a time of revolutionary turmoil, the sculpture’s role in the consolidation of national confidence and the collective imagining of empire had clearly earned it greater prominence within the art establishment. Although never executed, Flaxman’s Britannia reveals not only sculpture’s changing status at the Academy, but also its centrality to the enduring collective fantasy of British naval dominance and imperial power from the eighteenth century to the present.

  1. “The Sacred Brotherhood of the Sea”, The Spectator, 30 August 1918, 7–8, See also Arthur Bolton, “A Monumental Expression of ‘The Sacred Brotherhood of the Sea’”, The Spectator, 16 November 1918, 8–9,↩︎

  2. Flaxman’s work was no. 1037 in the exhibition catalogue, which described it as “a sketch for a colossal statue of Britannia triumphant, proposed to be erected upon Greenwich-hill”. It is unclear exactly which sketch was exhibited, but it was almost certainly the only known three-dimensional model of Britannia, now in the collection of the Soane Museum (see Fig. 2).↩︎

  3. For details on the competition and related schemes, see Alison Yarrington, The Commemoration of the Hero, 1800–1864: Monuments to the British Victors of the Napoleonic Wars (New York: Garland, 1988), 57–59, 338–345, and Holger Hoock, The King’s Artists: The Royal Academy of Arts and the Politics of British Culture 1760–1840 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 276–284.↩︎

  4. On this trend in monuments at the turn of the nineteenth century, see Nicholas Penny, “‘Amor Publicus Posuit’: Monuments for the People and of the People”, The Burlington Magazine 129, no. 1017 (1987): 793–800.↩︎

  5. For the history of Britannia’s imagery, see Katharine Eustace, “Britannia: Some High Points in the History of the Iconography of British Coinage”, British Numismatic Journal 76 (2006), 324–336; and Emma Major, Madam Britannia: Women, Church, and Nation, 1712–1812 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).↩︎

  6. John Flaxman, A Letter to the Committee for Raising the Naval Pillar, or Monument, under the Patronage of His Royal Highness the Duke of Clarence (London: T. Cadell et al., 1799), 7.↩︎

  7. Britannia had first appeared with a trident in 1797, on a series of new coins designed by Conrad Heinrich Küchler and minted by Matthew Boulton. See Eustace, “Britannia”, 330.↩︎

  8. Quoted in Allan Cunningham, The Lives of the Most Eminent British Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, 3 vols (London: J. Murray, 1829), vol. 3, 324.↩︎

  9. Flaxman told William Hayley in March 1800 that he “never expected it [Britannia] would be erected … I am philosopher enough to understand that effects are not to be produced without regular progression of means.” See Flaxman Papers, Blue Vellum Notebook, Cambridge MS, Fitzwilliam Museum, as quoted in Yarrington, The Commemoration of the Hero, 1800–1864, 59.↩︎

  10. “To the Editor of the Monthly Magazine”, The Monthly Magazine 12, no. 78 (October 1801), 213–214.↩︎

  11. See Alison Yarrington, “Viewing and Exhibiting Sculpture at Somerset House”, in David H. Solkin (ed.), Art on the Line: The Royal Academy Exhibitions at Somerset House, 1780–1836 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001), 173–187.↩︎

  12. For example, see “The Exhibition of the Royal Academy at Somerset House”, The Monthly Visitor 14, no. 54 (June 1801), 148–153. The reviewer discussed the works in the Model Academy cursorily at the very end of the article, without mentioning the names of any sculptors or architects, in stark contrast to the treatment of paintings earlier in the piece.↩︎

  13. John Flaxman, Lectures on Sculpture, as delivered before the President and Members of the Royal Academy, 2nd edn (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1838), 17.↩︎

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