Tuesday, 21 May 2013

The Ceramic Copy of the Vitreous Vase

                    One of the greatest works of antiquity that has survived into modern times is the Portland Vase. Known for many years as the Barberini Vase, it was discovered in the sepulchre of Emperor Alexander Severus and his mother, Julia Mammæa, who were assassinated in 235, in a mound known as Monte del Grano, about three miles outside Rome, on the road to Frascati. 

The Tomb of Severus - Pietro Bartoli - Gli Antichi Sepolcri - 1697

The vase passed into the ownership of the Barberini family and was kept for over two centuries in their library, until it was sold in 1770 to a Scots art dealer, James Byres (it is rumoured that Donna Cornelia Barberini-Colonna needed funds to cover her gambling debts), and although the Pope forbade its removal from Rome, the small size of the vase meant it was possible to smuggle it out. It was then bought for one thousand pounds, by Sir William Hamilton, who brought it to England in 1784, and soon after sold it to the Dowager Duchess of Portland. She died the following year and in 1786, the contents of her museum were sold at auction, and her son, the 3rd Duke, paid £1,029 for it. 

Portland Vase

At the auction, Josiah Wedgwood had determined to buy the vase and bid £1,000, when the young Duke, seeing that he and Wedgwood were the only two remaining bidders, crossed the auction room and asked him why he wanted to buy the vase. When Wedgwood told him that he wanted to copy it, the Duke told him that if he would stop bidding, he would buy the vase and lend it to him for as long as he needed time to copy it. Wedgwood then busied himself examining the vase, working out how best to reproduce it. 

Josiah Wedgwood

The Portland Vase stands 9¾ inches tall, 7¼ inches at its widest point and is 23 inches in circumference.Some Italian antiquaries had thought that it was made from semi-precious stone, with opinions varying between agate, chalcedony, sardonyx or amethyst, but Wedgwood soon discovered that it was made from glass. It looked black, but when held up to a strong light, it was seen to be a very dark blue, and the figures had not been applied later but the dark glass had been dipped, when red hot, into opaque white glass and the result shaped into form. When the glass cooled, the surplus white glass was ground back by a gem-cutter, using the same technique as a cameo cutter, a piece of work that probably took a skilled artist several years to complete. 

The First Compartment

The enormity of the task soon dawned on Wedgwood, as he realised that to reproduce the vase using modern techniques and craftsmen would cost more than £5,000. After consulting many experts on the matter, he resolved to make ceramic copies and spent the next three years working on mixing the right colours for the ground and modelling the figures that were to be applied to the vase, and several of the test pieces still survive. He had great problems in firing the correct colour, with cracking and blistering of the ground, and the bas-relief figures lifting, being amongst his problems. 

The Second Compartment

Aided by his chief artist and modeller, Henry Webber, and master potters William Hackwood, William Wood and others, Wedgwood and his sons tried a variety of bodies, colours and finishes, and spent £500 on making the mould until, in late 1789, the first perfect copy was achieved (which was sent to Dr Erasmus Darwin). In April 1791, another copy was sent to London, where it was shown to Queen Charlotte and placed in the rooms of the Society of Antiquaries, where Sir Joshua Reynolds, president of the Royal Academy, certified its similitude to the original. 

The Handles and the Bottom of the Vase

It was then taken to Greek Street and put on public display, with admission limited with only 1,900 tickets printed, and the copy was then taken as the centrepiece of an exhibition tour of Europe by Josiah Wedgwood the younger. A subscription was opened in 1789, and twenty subscribers placed their names on the list, but this number grew over time, although Wedgwood had more problems in producing copies of good enough quality to sell. The total number of the first edition is unknown, although it is thought to be less than fifty, (Eliza Meteyard, in her Wedgwood Handbook of 1875, lists twenty but admits that others had been lost in fires and by accident), and the price varied between £30 and £50, depending on quality. 

Wedgwood's Copy of the Portland Vase

Inevitably, there were also copies, which vary in size and quality, the majority being coarse and the worst being simply grotesque. In 1810, the 4th Duke of Portland placed the original vase to the British Museum, where it was on public display, and where, in 1845, a man going by the name of William Lloyd threw a nearby sculpture onto the top of the glass case holding the vase. The vase was broken into pieces and Lloyd arrested and charged with wilful damage, but due to a error in the wording of the law, which limited damage to articles worth less than five pounds, he was found guilty of damaging the glass exhibition case. 

Portland Vase

He was given the option of a three-pound fine or an eight-week prison sentence, but was freed when an anonymous benefactor paid the fine by post. It seems that William Lloyd was a pseudonym, and the perpetrator was William Mulcahy, a student of Trinity College, Dublin, who had spent the previous week drinking. A restored Portland Vase was put back on show, and has since been restored twice more, and was bought for the nation in 1945.

The Portland Vase in the Penny Magazine September 29 1832

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