The Fury of Athamas
John Flaxman RA (York 1755 – London 1826)
A colossal, marble sculpture of the King of Thebes about to throw his child against a rock may not be the most welcoming subject for an entrance hall, but it is precisely what greets visitors to the main rotunda of Ickworth in Suffolk. ‘The Fury of Athamas’ tells a tragic story of madness and murder, taken from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. King Athamas, driven to insanity by the Furies, goddesses of vengeance, believes his palace is in danger from a wild lioness and her cubs. In his madness he grabs his son Learchus, believing him to be one of the cubs, and hurls him against a rock. It was carved by John Flaxman, then a relatively unknown sculptor, for Frederick Augustus Hervey, 4th Earl of Bristol and Bishop of Derry. The commission evidently took place on the recommendation of Antonio Canova, while Flaxman and Hervey were both living in Rome. The latter is said to have prophetically declared, ‘Flaxman will rise to be the first sculptor in Europe, the exquisite Canova not excepted’. ‘The Fury of Athamas’ would ultimately cement Flaxman’s reputation as the most famous English neo-classical sculptor of his age. But the process of completing the monumental sculpture was a huge undertaking, not least because of the size. The 600 guineas Flaxman received as payment from Hervey barely covered the cost of materials and the artist had to find alternative methods to make a living whilst completing the sculpture, including becoming a book illustrator. The finished masterpiece had a chequered history before its eventual arrival in England. Hervey had the misfortune of assembling a rather large art collection in Italy during the time of the Napoleonic wars. In 1798 he was arrested by Napoleon’s army and the sculpture was confiscated. Flaxman’s sculpture, along with many cases of looted antiques, sculptures and paintings from all over Italy, made the arduous journey across land, sea and river before being brought to Paris as the culmination of Napoleon’s victorious Italian campaigns. Ultimately, Hervey’s son, Frederick, 1st Marquess of Bristol succeeded in purchasing the sculpture for a second time, and it finally came to Ickworth in the 1820s.
White marble sculpture on white wood plinth, The Fury of Athamas by John Flaxman RA (York 1755 – London 1826), 1790. Colossal white marble group of four figures on wooden plinth. It represents the scene from Ovid's Metamorphoses when Athamas, King of Thebes, driven mad by the gods, snatches his infant son Learchus from the arms of his mortal mother and his second wife, Ino, and dashes out his brains upon a rock, watched in terror by their other child, Melicertes. Commissioned by the Earl-Bishop in Rome in 1790 for £600. The sculpture was confiscated by the French in 1798 before it arrived at Ickworth and had to be bought back by the 1st Marquess in Paris in the early 1820s.
Commissioned by Frederick Augustus Hervey, the Earl-Bishop (1730-1803) in Rome in 1790 for £600; confiscated by the French in 1798 before it arrived at Ickworth and had to be bought back by the Frederick William Hervey, 1st Marquess (1769-1859) in Paris in the early 1820s; acquired by the National Trust in 1956 under the auspices of the National Land Fund, later the National Heritage Memorial Fund
Makers and roles
John Flaxman RA (York 1755 – London 1826), sculptor
Guilding 2014 Ruth Guilding, Owning the Past : Why the English collected Antique Sculpture, 1640 - 1840, Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, Yale University Press, 2014, p. 257, fig. 243