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The Fury of Athamas

John Flaxman RA (York 1755 – London 1826)

Category

Art / Sculpture

Date

1790 - 1794

Materials

Marble on wooden plinth

Measurements

2200 x 1980 mm

Place of origin

Rome

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Collection

Ickworth, Suffolk (Accredited Museum)

NT 852233

Summary

White marble on painted white wood plinth, The Fury of Athamas, John Flaxman RA (York 1755–London 1826), 1790-4. A colossal white marble group representing a tragic scene from Ovid's Metamorphoses; mounted on a painted wooden plinth. King Athamas is at right with his second wife Ino at left. As punishment for Ino having received and raised Dionysus, the illegitimate son of Zeus and Ino's sister Semele, Zeus's jealous consort Hera drives Athamas to madness. In a frenzy, Athamas seizes his and Ino's son Learchus and kills him. Ino escapes with her son Melicertes, who can be seen clutching his mother in terror.

Full description

The Fury of Athamas was commissioned in 1790 by Frederick Augustus Hervey, 4th Earl of Bristol and Bishop of Derry (1730-1803), while Flaxman and Hervey were living in Rome. Flaxman had settled there three years earlier, following a decade of work as a designer and potter for Josiah Wedgwood. Partly funded by Wedgwood, Flaxman went to Rome to study classical and contemporary sculpture to develop his practice. The Fury of Athamas would launch Flaxman's career in a more ambitious, academic line of sculpture, however the process of completing the commission proved troublesome and protracted. This was owed to the incredibly small sum of money - £600 - Hervey agreed to pay for it. Given its colossal size, marble and workmen's fees alone cost £550, leaving Flaxman a wage of only £50 over the four years it took to complete. The commission is understood to have been initiated from Flaxman's (now lost) terracotta bas-relief of Amphion and Zethus delivering their mother Antiope from the fury of Dirce and Lycus (recorded in a drawing reproduced in Libson 2013, p.43). Hervey initially requested a marble version of this bas-relief, which Flaxman negotiated up to the monumental sculpture group of Athamas. Elements of the design for Amphion and Zethus can be seen in the final commissioned sculpture: Athamas's powerful lunge and raised arm mirrors Amphion's, and Ino's desperate reach for Athamas mirrors Antiope's for Zethus. The pose adapted for Amphion and Athamas appears to quote a sarcophagus relief recorded by Flaxman in the Accoramboni Palace, Rome, in which a warrior lunges forward with his right leg and brandishes a sword with his raised arm bent at a right-angle. Flaxman's drawing of the sarcophagus relief is known through a tracing by William Ottley: see British Museum, London, 2006,0515.45. A further source for The Fury of Athamas is be a sculpture in the Farnese collection showing Neoptolemus throwing the infant Astyanax over the walls of Troy (Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, inv.no. 5999). The figure of Ino, meanwhile, may derive from Flaxman's studies of the Niobid group in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence, and Villa Medici, Rome: see Psyche, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, B1975.3.468(9) and Niobe, with her youngest daughter, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, 1975.3.468(68). Hervey, who had amassed an impressive art collection whilst in Italy, was arrested in 1798 by Napoleon’s army and Flaxman's sculpture was seized. It was brought to Paris at the culmination of Napoleon’s victorious Italian campaigns. Ultimately, Hervey’s son, Frederick, 1st Marquess of Bristol (1769-1859) succeeded in purchasing the sculpture for a second time, and it finally came to Ickworth in the 1820s. Alice Rylance-Watson January 2019

Provenance

Commissioned by Frederick Augustus Hervey, the Earl-Bishop (1730-1803) in Rome in 1790 for £600; confiscated by the French in 1798 before it was purchased in Paris and brought back to Ickworth by Frederick William Hervey, 1st Marquess (1769-1859) ,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.

Credit line

Ickworth, The Bristol Collection (acquired through the National Land Fund and transferred to The National Trust in 1956)

Makers and roles

John Flaxman RA (York 1755 – London 1826), sculptor

References

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 Libson 2013: Lowell Libson Ltd 2013, British Painting sand Works on Paper, London 2013, pp.41-2

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