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image M1163

John Flaxman (1755 - 1826)

Model for the monument to William Murray (1705-1793), first Earl of Mansfield, clay

Museum number: M1163

Curatorial note

William Murray (1705-1793), first Earl of Mansfield, had an illustrious legal career culminating in his appointment as Lord Chief Justice from 1756 to 1788. His pioneering judgement in the Somerset case in 1772 (James Somerset, a former slave, was clapped in irons by his former master and set to be shipped out to be sold in Jamaica) held that English Law did not recognise the state of slavery. This restricted slavery in Britain at a time when owning an African slave was the height of fashion in London. His tolerance towards Roman Catholics led an anti-Catholic mob to burn down his town house in Bloomsbury Square during the Gordon Riots of 1780 – he and Lady Mansfield barely escaped with their lives. When Mansfield died he was buried in the north transept of Westminster Abbey. His standing was reflected in the commissioning of a marble memorial from the neo-classical sculptor, John Flaxman, installed in 1801 between pillars and set against the Gothic windows of the Abbey.

In this small-scale model for the memorial, which Soane placed in its present position, Flaxman’s skill as a modeller is immediately obvious. The final monument, in white marble, would have been executed by assistants under his direction. The design is highly unusual in being free-standing rather than a wall monument which was the original intention – indeed, it was the first monument in an English church in the form of a free-standing group. Flaxman received the commission while in Italy and was able to study papal tombs in Rome by sculptors like Bernini while working on his design. Lord Mansfield is depicted enthroned in judicial robes, flanked by the figures of Justice holding her scales and wearing a helmet and Wisdom holding the book of law. At the back of the monument is a seated youth representing Death. The monument was moved from its original position in the Abbey in 1933 and today stands surrounded by other monuments in a setting where it is difficult to appreciate it fully.

Exhibition history

John Flaxman: Making Monuments, UCL Art Museum, University College London, 23 April to 14 June 2003


If you have any further information about this object, please contact us: worksofart@soane.org.uk