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Cephalus and Aurora, 1789-90, by John Flaxman


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About the artwork

The story of Cephalus and Aurora is told in Book 7 of Ovid's 'Metamorphoses'. This Roman text had inspired artists for centuries because of its colourful portrayal of Greek myths. Cephalus, an Athenian hero, fell in love with and married Procris. Shortly afterwards while hunting deer he caught the attention of the Goddess of Dawn, Aurora. She had a roving eye and was frequently attracted to young mortal men. Descending from her mountain home, Aurora carried Cephalus off with her. However, on finding that he remained faithful to Procris, she allowed him to return home, privately swearing vengeance. She caused a spirit of jealousy to infect their marriage and this eventually resulted in the accidental death of Procris. She suffered a wound inflicted by Cephalus with his hunting spear.

The two key episodes of Cephalus's story, his abduction by Aurora and his killing of his beloved Procris, became very popular with artists, writers and composers during the eighteenth century, especially in Europe. Flaxman - although the first major British artist to depict 'Cephalus and Aurora' - was thus joining a distinguished tradition. Nevertheless, it is hard to avoid the feeling that this was an unusual choice of subject for him. With its overtones of titillating suspense and carnal desire, the story would not obviously appeal to a man who was naturally quiet, religious and moralistic. Flaxman may have been struck by Agostino Carracci's well-known fresco in the Farnese Palace. The subject may also have suited the exercise of making a small work, classical in style, combining two figures in graceful movement.

Flaxman travelled to Rome in 1787 to study Renaissance art and antique sculpture. It was here that he created 'Cephalus and Aurora'. From a letter of January 1790, it is suggested that he had worked on the plaster model of 'Cephalus and Aurora' over the previous winter, intending to cast it in bronze. The scale of the figures, smaller than life-size, indicates that Flaxman was not trying to make a grand public statement. The similarities of the figures to well-known antique works suggests he viewed the sculpture as an exercise, tying in with his studies. He modelled the figure of Cephalus on the famous 'Apollo Belvedere'. His vision of Aurora has close parallels with classical statues of 'Nike' or Winged Victory, which he drew at the time in his sketchbooks.

In January 1790 Flaxman would have thought that his stay in Rome was coming to an end. He may have considered 'Cephalus and Aurora' as its culmination. Two months later, however, the Earl of Bristol commissioned a colossal marble statue, 'The Fury of Athamas'. Work on this kept Flaxman in Rome for another four years. It dramatically altered the profile of his career. It is possible that, having at first envisaged the piece as a bronze, he decided to carve 'Cephalus and Aurora' in marble as a way of preparing for Lord Bristol's commission.

John Flaxman (1755-1826) was the son of a plaster cast maker whose London shop was frequented by many artists. His childhood environment thus centred upon sculpture, as a business as well as an art form. He displayed a precocious talent, first exhibiting at the Royal Academy in 1771 when he was only 15. As a young man Flaxman was chiefly employed by Josiah Wedgwood, a business contact of his father. He designed reliefs for Wedgwoods ceramic wares. One of these was the 'Apotheosis of Homer', taken from an engraving of an antique vase in the noted collection of Sir William Hamilton. It can now be seen in the Wedgwood rooms at the Lady Lever. Their grace and purity, hallmarks of the then fashionable 'neo-classical' style, hinted at the character of Flaxman's later sculptures.

While commissions from Wedgwood provided his bread and butter, Flaxman wanted to make large-scale, idealistic sculpture. He succeeded in securing a few commissions for funerary monuments. These enabled him to cut his teeth as a marble carver. By 1787 he had made enough money, from both sides of his career, to fund a trip to Italy. There he studied antique statues and the art of the Italian Renaissance. Flaxman had no doubt that he would develop and mature as an artist, as well as attract the patronage of connoisseurs. Many other 18th century British artists had achieved success and fame this way.

Flaxman's stay in Italy, which he had intended to be for three years but in fact lasted seven, was the turning point of his career. He returned home in 1794 a European celebrity. This was thanks to the success of a series of drawings he had published in 1793 illustrating Homer's 'Iliad'. In a severe outline style, these drawings were extremely influential on following generations. They became a virtual textbook for young artists learning to draw the human figure. Flaxman had also gained extensive experience as a sculptor while in Rome. From the mid-1790s until his death, he dominated the practice of sculpture in Britain.

It is traditionally said that 'Cephalus and Aurora' was commissioned from Flaxman by the young Thomas Hope. Hope was one of the greatest collectors of antiquities and champions of classical taste in Britain from the 1790s up till his death in 1831. Since Hope did not arrive in Rome for the first time until the end of 1791, this cannot be the case. Hope did indeed commission several other works from Flaxman early in 1792. He may have already purchased 'Cephalus and Aurora' by then or may have persuaded Flaxman to carve the subject in marble from the existing plaster.

What is not in doubt is the central place Hope had soon given the work within his famous collection. In 1799, he began developing a large town house in London as a series of carefully designed interiors for the display of his sculptures and other antiquities. He created a Flaxman room with 'Cephalus and Aurora' as its centrepiece. He surrounded the work with mirrors so that visitors could see it from different angles from one spot. He added to the effect with orange and black velvet-edged curtains - the colours found on Greek vases. Hope's view of the sculpture as epitomising the spirit of antiquity has coloured posterity's appreciation of it, concealing the Baroque feel of its scale, its carving and even its subject matter.

The Hope collection was sold at auction in London in 1917. Lord Leverhulme wanted to strengthen the classical content of the Lady Lever gallery he had started building four years earlier. He was a major buyer at the sale and 'Cephalus and Aurora' was among the items that he acquired.

Compare Flaxman’s figure to the Apollo Belvedere [opens new window] in the Vatican Museum