Flaxman's famous series of illustrations to Homer were commissioned by Mrs. Hare-Naylor, daughter of the Bishop of St. Asaph and cousin of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, or her husband, and by a Mr. Udney; Flaxman was paid fifteen shillings a sheet and they were engraved in Rome by Thomas Piroli. They are first recorded in a letter from Flaxman, in Rome, to the painter George Romney: 'My employments at present are...& in the Evenings making a Series of Drawings from Homer & Dante which are engraving'. On 15 December 1792 the artist's wife Nancy wrote to her sister Mary that Flaxman 'is at home in the Evenings and he is employed & that closely too - in making a compleat set of drawings from Dante's Heaven, Hell & Purgatory...after these (or rather going on at the same time) are a set of drawings from Homer's Iliad & Odyssey - consisting of 60 most beautiful Subjects & as beautifully treated - they are for Mr Udney an English Man - of which also he makes duplicates for Mr Naylor (Husband of the late Bishop of St. Asaph's Daughter) the which are also Engraving here as Mr. Naylor means to publish them on his return to England....'. The Naylor drawings are now in the Royal Academy.
Piroli's engravings were first published in Rome on the 11 February 1793 but the duplicate set for Naylor was lost at sea or 'Seiz'd by the French'; as a result a further set of plates was engraved by James Parker (at one time William Blake's partner) and James Neagle, and published in London in 1805, when six subjects were added to the 29 engraved by Piroli.
The engravings were of immense influence on European artists of the Neo-Classical movement and were assessed and praised by George Romney in a letter to William Hayley: 'They are outlines without shadows, but in the style of ancient art. They are simple, grand and pure; I may say with truth very fine. They look as if they had been made in the age when Homer wrote'.
This drawing, for plate 17 in the 1805 publication, illustrates the passage in Book XI when Odysseus, on Circe's advice, goes to Hades on the edge of the world to seek out the prophet Teiresias for advice on how to reach his home in Ithaca. There they made sacrifices and are assailed by the dead souls seeking the sacrificial blood. The three figures in armour are probably Ajax, Agamemnon and Achilles, not mentioned in the text here but referred to earlier.
Compared to the drawing at the Royal Academy our example is much closer to the engraving, almost identical in design but differing in detail as in the small background heads and the shadows. It is difficult to make out whether the very rough pencil drawings in the lower left and upper right are related to the composition or not; they occupy bare areas of the engraving.
(For general information on the Odyssey series see G.E. Bentley, Jr., The Early Engravings of Flaxman's Classical Designs, New York, 1964, and D. Bindman, ed., John Flaxman, R.A., exhibition catalogue, London, Royal Academy, 1979, pp. 86-7, 92-3, with an appendix by D.W. Dörrbecker on the editions of the engravings, pp. 184-5.)