'Shield of Achilles', a monumental and important silver gilt shield

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Object Description

‘Shield of Achilles’, a monumental and important silver gilt shield
Designed by John Flaxman for Rundell, Bridge & Rundell
English, Early 19th Century
Shield: Diameter 90cm
Case: Height 23cm, width 99cm, depth 99cm

The Shield of Achilles designed by John Flaxman (1755-1826) and manufactured by the renowned British firm of Rundell, Bridge & Rundell is an immensely important piece of British sculpture. The story of the Shield of Achilles comes from the eighteenth book of Illiad, in which Homer, one of the most influential poets in history, describes a shield made for Achilles. Some scholars interpret the symbolism of the shield to be seen as a representation of the whole of civilization. In his writings Homer included an in-depth description of the shield and Flaxman’s design is an interpretation of it.

Apollo, the god of music and poetry is depicted in high-relief in the central medallion of this convex-shaped shield. The Greek god is portrayed riding in a quadriga and is surrounded by stars and females, representative of the constellations. Around the central medallion cast in low-relief are scenes of battle and a marriage procession among others. Stylised waves are cast in low-relief on the outer border.

John Flaxman not only provided designs for this piece but also the model used by the Royal Goldsmiths to produce the final piece. The work on the first shield started c. 1810 and was completed by 1818. Only five copies were made in silver gilt with the first one being displayed for the first time at George IV’s coronation banquet in July 1921. The remaining four were sold to the Duke of York, the Earl of Lonsdale, Ernest Augustus, Duke of Cumberland and King of Hanover, fifth son of George III as well as the Duke of Northumberland, who was the owner of the shield in our collection. A number of copies of the Shield of Achilles were also made in bronze and plaster.

In a 1829 biography of Nollekens, J.T. Smith outlined the design process undertaken by Flaxman; ‘He first modelled the general design, without attending minutely to the respective parts; it was then moulded in compartments, and cast in plaster, and he afterwards finished it up, by cutting away to that inimitable height of excellence, which enabled his spirited employers to produce those splendid casts of it in silver gilt’. Pen and ink drawings were also produced by the sculptor demonstrating individual parts of the shield.

A fitted case comes with this extremely important piece of British sculpture. The reverse of the shield is inscribed ‘Designed & Modelled by John Flaxman, R.A. Executed & Published by Rundell, Bridge & Rundell, Goldmith & Jewellers, To His Majesty, London MDCCCXXII.’ Four large rings are affixed at the centre and border of the shield (two in each place).

Two of the five copies are currently in the collection of the Royal Collection Trust and the National Trust Collection in Anglesey Abbey, Cambridgeshire. 

Object Details

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