The Shield of Achilles is an exceptional and historically important piece of English silverware. It was designed and modelled by the sculptor and draughtsman John Flaxman (1755-1826) and manufactured by the renowned firm of goldsmiths Rundell, Bridge & Rundell, who were also responsible for making the Crown Jewels used at the coronations of George IV, William IV and Queen Victoria.
The central medallion on the convex-shaped shield is cast in high-relief depicting Apollo in a quadriga. Apollo - the god of music and poetry - is surrounded by a group of female figures and stars which symbolise the constellations. The broad border surrounding Apollo is cast in low-relief and portrays both humans and animals in various scenes including a marriage procession and a battle. The outer border is also cast in low-relief with stylised waves.
The story of the Shield of Achilles comes from the eighteenth book of Iliad, in which Homer describes a legendary shield made for Achilles who was the strongest warrior in Greek mythology. The symbolism of the shield can be interpreted in various ways, for example as a representation of civilization, with all aspects of life, such as law and order depicted on the piece. Flaxman's design is an interpretation of the design described by Homer.
Unlike the British sculptor's previous work for Rundell, Bridge & Rundell, the firm comissioned Flaxman to not only provide the designs for the Shield, but also the model from which the Royal Goldsmiths were to produce the finished piece. Flaxman started the work on the design around 1810 and on 15 March 1810 Mrs Flaxman reported to a friend that 'our evenings are spent in making designs for the Shield of Achilles'.
The Shield of Achilles was not the first time Flaxman worked for Rundell, Bridge & Rundell, with their cooperation starting around 1805, however the Shield is said to be one of Flaxman's finest acheivements. In 1826, the correspondent of The Times stated that of all Flaxman's work 'the most wonderful... is the representation of the Shield of Achilles...'.
In 1829 the author J.T. Smith described the work as 'the eternal monument of his fame...' and described the manufacturing process of the shield underaken 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'.
The description indicates the large amount of skill and labour undertaken to produce a piece of such high quality and importance. It is worth highlighting that Flaxman produced pen and ink sketches portrying parts of the shield, which can be seen in the photographs above.
The finished model was handed to Rundell, Bridge & Rundell in 1818 with only five copies being made in silver gilt. The first appeared in public for the first time at George IV's coronation banquet in July 1821. The three other shields were purchased by the Duke of York, the Earl of Lonsdale and the Duke of Northumberland. The fifth shield was hallmarked 1823-24 and was sold to Ernest Augustus, Duke of Cumberland and King of Hanover, fifth son of George III. Several other copies were made in bronze and plaster, with Sir John Soane being given the original cast in 1834.
The Shield in Mayfair Gallery's collection is the one purchased by the Duke of Northumberland, who was supplied the piece on 15 July 1822.
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.', whilst four large rings are fixed to the reverse of the Shield for the purpose of fixing leather straps.
The Shield is fully hallmarked to the front lower centre and comes with its original fitted case, which is further labelled with details of its former owner 'His Grace The Duke of Northumberland'.
The Shield of Achilles is a museum quality piece, attested to by the inclusion of two of the five shields in the renowned collections of the Royal Collection Trust and the National Trust Collection in Anglesey Abbey, Cambridgeshire.
Shield: Diameter 90cm
Case: Height 23cm, width 99cm, depth 99cm