Mercury descending with Pandora is said to have been amongst Flaxman’s favourite works (Bindman, 1979, p. 108, no. 122). The original plaster, now at the Ny Carlsberg Glyptothek, Copenhagen, was exhibited at the Royal Academy in London in 1805 (no. 765). The relief illustrates an episode from Hesiod’s Works and Day’s when Zeus/ Jupiter sends Mercury to carry Pandora to Epimetheus as a gift, preceding the fateful moment when she opens the box that unleashes sickness, death and other evils to the world. Hesiod writes: ‘He bade Heaven’s messenger convey thro’ air / To Epimetheus hands.’
The model was successful and was translated into various materials; plaster versions can be found at University College London and also in the Royal Collection at Osborne House (inv. no. RCIN 41874). It was appropriated by Henry Weigall for his commemorative medal dedicated to Flaxman, which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1846 (no. 1372); though here the subject has been changed to Mercury bringing Prosperpina from Hades (see Bindman, 1979, op. cit., p. 140).
According to David Bindman (Grove, op. cit.) and Mary Webster (op. cit. p. 101), after his return from Italy in 1794, Flaxman delegated most if not all of the carving of his marbles to his studio assistants, choosing to focus his attentions on line drawings and sketch models. For Flaxman, the model had primacy over the final execution. The extraordinary collection of plaster sketches at University College London are a testament to that. The present marble is no exception and is likely to have been commissioned by Alexander Baring (or possibly his father Sir Francis Baring) or his architect from Flaxman, whose studio would have executed the final marble relief.
The Baring family were important patrons of Flaxman. Alexander Baring’s father Sir Francis Baring, 1st Baronet (1740-1810) had commissioned a family funerary monument from Flaxman for Micheldever Church in 1809 in the form of a relief with a veiled woman seated in prayer underneath the words ‘Thy will be done’. The monument was later added to with two further reliefs. Significantly, Flaxman was close to Charles Robert Cockerell (1788-1863), the architect commissioned by Alexander Baring to design a magnificent new dining room and conservatory for Grange Park between 1824 and 1825. Cockerell is recorded as having ordered a large relief for a mantlepiece from Grange Park (Bindman, 1979, op. cit., p. 33). Cockerell’s diaries (now in the British Architectural Library at RIBA, London) contain numerous references to Flaxman, including one from 3 March 1825:
Called on … Flaxman, found he had done little to Baring’s work - very feeble & slow. his lamp is expiring - little fruit can be expected from so old a stock however golden in his former productions - his religious learned & contemplative mind is too little of this world to feel powerfully the attractions of art & this will still diminish as he draws higher to the object of his thought. (as quoted in Bindman, 1979, op. cit., p. 33)
It seems probable, given that Cockerell was working with Flaxman on a commission for Grange Park in 1825, that the present relief would have been made around this time. Its absence from Cockerell’s diaries may be explained by the fact that the mantlepiece was a new model, whereas the present relief is carved after an earlier model and would have been executed by the sculptor’s studio under his direction. Furthermore, what is interesting is that, certainly by 1868 when Grange Park was again remodelled by another generation of Barings, the present relief had been combined with Thorvaldsen’s Night and Day, which share their characteristic ‘aerial’ dimension with the Mercury descending with Pandora (the figurative groups are suspended in air mid flight). It is interesting to muse whether, upon receiving Thorvaldsen’s reliefs, Baring or Cockerell asked Flaxman for a complementary relief to fit into a specific interior at Grange Park.
Period Flaxman marbles are rare on the market. The sale of the present relief, which is in excellent condition, represents a unique opportunity for collectors of Neoclassical sculpture.
D. Bindman (ed.), John Flaxman, RA, exh. cat. Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1979; M. Webster, Flaxman as Sculptor, in D. Bindman (ed.), John Flaxman, RA, exh. cat. Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1979, pp. 100-101; D. Bindman, Flaxman, John. Grove Art Online. Retrieved 26 May. 2019, from https://www.oxfordartonline.com/groveart/view/10.1093/gao/9781884446054.001.0001/oao-9781884446054-e-7000028539
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