Flaxman’s Agamemnon: A Subtle Influence

John Flaxman is a figure not very often referenced by Symonds in his memoirs or his letters, but someone who seems to have a more hidden connection with Symonds. The one mention of Flaxman in the memoirs mentions him in the context of picture books and how he “drew a great deal from Raphael, Flaxman and Retzch.” At the very least, Flaxman’s illustrations served as one of Symonds’ first introductions to Greek classics. The specific Flaxman book I will be referring to is Compositions from the Tragedies of Aeschylus, of which the content seems fairly self-explanatory.

Title page of Compositions from the Tragedies of Aeschylvs. Designed by John Flaxman, engraved by Thomas Piroli. London: J. Flaxman by J. Matthews, 1795. From the Sheridan Libraries, JHU. Link. Photo by Joon Yoon.

The reference from his memoirs, along with a mention in one of his letters about selling a Flaxman book as part of a “list”, is strong evidence that Symonds had these books lying around in his collection and would have been familiar with them. In his memoirs he also mentions his house “well stocked with engravings, photographs, copies of Italian pictures and illustrated works upon Greek sculpture.” (page 118) It wouldn’t have at all been unusual for Symonds to possess his books, between his interest in classical Greek literature and noted proclivity toward collecting artwork. The publishing date of 1795 is also well before Symonds’ time (being born in 1840), making it entirely plausible for Symonds to have owned a copy. While Flaxman as a figure does not appear much in Symonds’ writing, Aeschylus certainly does, making appearances multiple times in his memoirs, his letters, and a few instances in A Problem in Greek Ethics. Considering all these factors, it would be a seemingly gaping hole in his collection if Symonds never owned a version of Flaxman’s illustrations of Aeschylus.

Clytemnestra expressing grief over Agamemnon’s death. From Compositions from the Tragedies of Aeschylvs. Designed by John Flaxman, engraved by Thomas Piroli. London: J. Flaxman by J. Matthews, 1795. From the Sheridan Libraries, JHU. https://catalyst.library.jhu.edu/catalog/bib_849840. Photo by Kyle Bacon.

The specific play pictured in this image is Agamemnon, a play by Aeschylus which dramatizes the life of the titular Agamemnon, a mythological king of Mycanae. The scene pictured in the photo seems to be Agamemnon’s wife, Clytemnestra, standing over his corpse, after he has been killed according to Cassandra’s prophecy. The quote underlying the illustration seems to be Clytemnestra expressing grief over her husband’s death, though the picture itself seems to tell a different tale, from her facial expression. Perhaps it could be interpreted as indignant rage over her husband’s death, but the play itself also says otherwise. Clytemnestra had a lover, and when Agamemnon dies, she takes over the government with him. The expression on her face in the picture does not seem to match her quote, but also is not particularly congruent with the events of the play that are going on in that moment. In terms of Symonds’ interest in the Agamemnon in particular, he does not reference in much in the writings we have looked at; there is one mention in the letters but nothing particularly earth-shattering. He does reference Aeschylus a fair bit throughout his letters, and a few times in both his memoirs and A Problem in Greek Ethics. But it seems fair to assume, at least for the scholarly affairs of Greek Ethics and his life in general, Aeschylus and the Agamemnon were not particularly massive influences. Which leaves us only with the vague speculations of what a young boy looking at this particular image could have seen when gazing into the confusingly furious eyes of a cheating wife looking at her husband’s body while expressing grief. We can probably assume that Symonds was not aware of the events in the play, but I think there is still something to be said. Perhaps the disconnect between facial expression and quote inspired a sort of curiosity, an inkling in him that something was quite not right with the situation. Essentially, it might have served as a sort of gateway to hint at the depth of the Greek classics, and planted the seed that would sprout into his research into Greek classics years later. It provided a question, that he would later answer through the course of his life through study.

One thought on “Flaxman’s Agamemnon: A Subtle Influence

Leave a Reply