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Unsuspected riches

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Flaxman, Master of the Purest Line At Sir John Soane's Museum, Lincoln's Inn Fields, London WC2, and University College London, until 14 June

It is a safe bet that very few people have ever been tempted through the gates of William Wilkins' University College quadrangle off Gower Street just to admire the architecture.

Like the National Gallery, his Neo-Classical scheme of the late 1820s is oddly scaled and surprisingly dull, failing to rise with any architectural panache to the enlightened liberal aims of the new institution. Yet under the shrunken dome, and behind the awkward, conflated columns of the loud portico, lurks one of the most impressive Classical interiors in London - the Octagon Hall, an addition by Thomas Donaldson.

The Octagon Hall, opened in 1851, was designed to display John Flaxman's wallmounted plaster casts, recently donated to the college. The hall suffered heavy bomb damage in 1940-41, but survived and has just been restored. Despite the (apparently authentic) 'raspberry ripple' colour of the walls, the whole ensemble looks very handsome. The display in the Strang Gallery (limited opening times) puts the casts into context, using drawings and reduced scale models to link them to Flaxman's numerous monuments to the great, the good and the prominent of the early 19th century, several of which can be seen in London churches (a helpful Flaxman trail is available for the indefatigable).

These unsuspected riches are displayed as part of an exhibition split between two sites, Gower Street and Lincoln's Inn Fields, where Sir John Soane's Museum has always offered a permanent exhibition of Flaxman's work.

Around the house are dozens of casts and objects commemorating the friendship between the two men and their families, dating back to the 1770s when both were students at the Royal Academy schools; a friendship which foundered briefly when they clashed over the design of the new Theatre Royal - for which Flaxman designed the frieze - but soon recovered.

The current exhibition of his drawings, mostly borrowed from the University College collection, offers an interesting selection of his work, in particular from the years he spent in Italy (Flaxman lived in Rome from 1787 until 1794). He had a limited but effective repertoire. The spare drawings show gesture, movement and drapery drawn as if being incised; a girl throws a sheet over a washing line, straining male figures wrestle, mothers lift and shelter their children - the latter often transformed into poignant memorials to young families.

As well as the studies that were to feed into the innumerable monuments (eventually carved by teams of masons), the exhibition includes illustrations for the texts and schematic drawings that Flexman used for his lectures as the Royal Academy's first professor of sculpture.

He worked tirelessly; the catalogue reveals the central role that the able Anne (Nancy) Flaxman played in her husband's career, organising and managing every detail, both in Rome and in England. The links between the Soanes and the Flaxmans were both professional and personal. Their wives became close friends and Nancy's letters, written when the two families holidayed together in Margate, contain some of the most intimate vignettes of the Soane household to have survived. In one there is a glimpse of Eliza Soane bathing 'like a naiad', a well-chosen simile from the wife of the leading English Neo-Classical sculptor.

Nancy's sister Maria Denham was the donor of Flaxman's work to University College (and, earlier, had presented Soane with his Flaxman collection), through the good offices of the ubiquitous Henry Crabb Robinson. Fittingly, it is in the gossipy Robinson's diary that we read of the two elderly widowers dining together one evening in December 1826, Soane railing about the treatment he had received over his designs for the Law Courts; the next day Flaxman was dead. Now their graves lie companionably close in St Pancras burial ground, a few dozen metres from London's new link to mainland Europe, where both young men had found their inspiration.

Gillian Darley writes on architecture and art

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