This drawing of a bronze relief by Donatello from the altar of the Santo in Padua was made by Flaxman as an illustration to one of the lectures he delivered in 1811 at the Royal Academy in his capacity as Professor of Sculpture. Used to illustrate the work of Donatello it would have acted as a visual aid to those attending the lecture. A lithotint, produced by George Scharf in 1830, shows Richard Westmacott delivering a lecture as Professor of Sculpture, he is depicted declaiming in the Great Room at Somerset House, surrounded by casts from the collection of the Royal Academy. Flaxman followed the method preferred by the contemporary professors of architecture, Sir John Soane and painting, Henry Fuseli in preparatory drawings to illustrate his lectures. The drawings Soane used to illustrate his lectures survive in the collection of Sir John’s Soane’s Museum, whilst Fuseli’s published lectures, show he relied upon the copies of old master paintings which hung in the Great Room as dressing during the winter season, including the Raphael tapestry cartoons visible on the walls in Scharf’s 1830 view.
Writing about the first of Flaxman’s lectures, delivered at the Royal Academy on 18th February 1811, the diarist Henry Robinson, noted: ‘he spoke like an artist who loved and honoured his art…he had all the unpretending simplicity of a truly great man. His unimposing figure received consequence from the animation of his countenance; and his voice, though feeble, was so judiciously managed and so clear, and his enunciation was so distinct, that he was audible to a large number of people.’ The texts of the lectures were gathered together after his death and published in 1829, from which we gain an idea of the context in which this drawing was used. Donatello appears in Lecture X: ‘The next distinguished restorer of sculpture was Donatello the Florentine. Some of his works, both in bronze and marble, might be placed beside the best productions of ancient Greece without discredit. In the ‘Opera del Duomo’ of Santa Maria del Fiore, the Cathedral of Florence, there is an alto-relievo of two singing boys of extraordinary beautify in sentiment, character, drawing and drapery.’ Although this passage refers to Donatello’s marble relief on the Cantoria, it could equally be applied to the detail depicted in this drawing of the bronze figures from the altar in the Santo at Padua.
Flaxman’s lectures represent an eloquent survey of the diverse sculpture which was of interest to early nineteenth century artists and had influenced his own work in particular. From his sustained description of the sculpture on the façade of Wells cathedral in the first lecture to discussion of the early quattrocento reliefs he had drawn with William Young Ottley in Italy, to the contemporary celebrity of Antonio Canova. His greatest reverence was for the great works of antiquity, not only the newly popular and recently arrived Parthenon marbles, but the heavily restored, Hellenistic works beloved of eighteenth century Grand Tourists. Indeed, he concluded the ninth lecture by reminding his audience that the study of ancient sculpture had the practical advantage of ‘guarding against error and false systems’, and that if artists wished to attain excellence ‘we cannot proceed by a more certain course than that by which it has been attained before.’ This drawing is important evidence of Flaxman, at the end of his career, reaffirming the importance of a syllabus of sculpture he first absorbed at the Royal Academy schools from 1769.
From 1800 Flaxman had been actively involved in augmenting the collections of the Royal Academy, particularly with the purchase of casts of ‘the most sublime models of Greek sculpture’. Flaxman himself presented the Academy with a cast of the Capitoline Venus in 1808 and was instrumental in ensuring a change in the law which enabled casts for the Academy to be imported free from custom charges. Whilst not one of Flaxman’s great designs, as a document of his aspirations and activities as a teacher it is unique and a remarkable testament to the academic principles of early nineteenth century British art.