Josiah Wedgwood’s copy of the Portland vase - 1789
Black jasper with white reliefs, this vase is a copy after the famous Roman cameo-glass vase once owned by the Duchess of Portland. The original Roman cameo-glass vase, known as the Barberini vase, was made by Alexandrian craftsmen about AD50. It was brought back to England by Sir William Hamilton who sold it to the Duchess of Portland, from whom it takes its modern name, the Portland Vase. On her death the celebrated vase was included in the sale of her personal museum when it was purchased by her son, the 3rd Duke of Portland. Three days later Wedgwood borrowed the original vase and commenced his nearly four year long struggle to copy the vase in his jasper body.
Black jasper with white reliefs, this vase is a copy after the famous Roman cameo-glass vase once owned by the Duchess of Portland. The original Roman cameo-glass vase, known as the Barberini vase, was made by Alexandrian craftsmen about AD50. It was brought back to England by Sir William Hamilton who sold it to the Duchess of Portland, from whom it takes its modern name, the Portland Vase. On her death the celebrated vase was included in the sale of her personal museum when it was purchased by her son, the 3rd Duke of Portland. Three days later Wedgwood borrowed the original vase and commenced his nearly four year long struggle to copy the vase in his jasper body. Josiah working with his chief artists, Henry Webber and modellers William Hackwood and William Wood, started to experiment to reproduce the blue-black colour of the original glass vase. The technical problems in making the vase proved more difficult than Josiah had anticipated. In July 1789 Wedgwood wrote that having made several defective copies he could see his way to completing the vase.The first perfect copy was produced in September 1789. The vase was initially privately shown to his friends, including Dr Erasmus Darwin, before it was seen by Sir Joshua Reynolds, President of the Royal Academy who declared the vase to be a, ‘faithful imitation, both in regards of the general effects and the most minute details of the parts’. The initial vases were sold by subscription as well as displayed in London, with admission by ticket only and taken on a mini-grand tour of Europe. The Portland Vase has become the icon of Wedgwood’s jasper production and has continued to be produced to today. The vase is counted amongst the greatest technical achievements of Josiah Wedgwood’s life.
- Type of object: Ornamental ware/vase
- Year first produced: 1789
- Body: jasper
- Glaze: unglazed
- Material: ceramic
- Decoration: ornamented, sprigged
- Accession number: 4318
- Dimensions: 255 mm (height), 190 mm (diameter)
Josiah Wedgwood I
Josiah Wedgwood I - Owner (1730 - 1795)
Josiah was born in 1730, the youngest of twelve children born to Mary Wedgwood and her husband, Thomas. His father was a potter who lived and worked at the Churchyard Works, Burslem. This town was still connected by rough roads to the other five towns which made up the area of North Staffordshire known as the Potteries. By the time of his death, Josiah Wedgwood I not only improved the variety and quality of pottery produced, but he also opened up the area as an important centre of commerce with the rest of the world through his involvement in the development of canal and road networks. He went on to become one of the most influential ceramic manufacturers in the world, and earned the title 'The Father of English Potters'. His direct descendants are still involved in the factory which bears his name today.Much of Josiah's development as a successful businessman, philanthropist and potter can be accounted for by the ill fortunes he suffered. At the age of 9 when his father died and he had to abandon his formal school education in order to work in the family business. Then at around eleven years old he contracted smallpox and was left with a knee-infection which constricted his use of the kick-wheel on which the pottery shapes were formed. From that time onwards he focused on affecting the perfection and marketing of Burslem's main product.Another spur to Wedgwood’s success was his growing affection for his distant cousin, Sarah whom he had met at the home of his wealthy uncles, John and Thomas. Whereas Josiah came from a poor background, Richard, his future father-in-law, was a prosperous cheese-merchant from Cheshire who apparently insisted that the young potter achieved a certain level of wealth before he could marry his daughter. Wedgwood entered partnerships with other potters, most notably Thomas Whieldon, and established himself as an independent potter in 1759. He moved to superior premises at the Ivy House Works where he perfected his Queen’s ware body and then to the Brick House Works. His reputation was rapidly spreading farther afield and finally, Richard was convinced of his suitability as a husband for his daughter, Sarah.There is no doubt as to Josiah’s love for Sarah when, on the eve of their wedding in 1764 he wrote to his partner, Thomas Bentley: 'I yesterday prevailed upon my dear Girl to name the day, the blissful day! When she will reward all my faithfull services and take me to her Arms!'.
William Hackwood - Modeller (1753 - 1836)
Josiah Wedgwood first took on Hackwood at the Wedgwood Etruria factory in 1769. Wedgwood described him as an 'ingenious boy' - he was ultimately destined to become the chief modeller of the ornamental range at the Etruria factory. His forté was the production and modelling of portrait medallions - and he was particularly indispensable in the work of adapting busts, reliefs and designs that Wedgwood obtained from various sources. Many of the 18th-century portrait medallions are by his hand and include portraits of Josiah Wedgwood I, George III and Queen Charlotte. A few signed works also exist - the portraits of Garrick and Shakespeare were signed on the truncation, or just under the shoulder. Wedgwood disproved of this practice and Hackwood was instructed not to repeat this.In 1774, Wedgwood wrote 'Hackwood is of the greatest value and consequence in finishing fine small work, and of this kind we have and shall have enough to employ him constantly'. Two years later he was further wishing that he had '....half a dozen more Hackwoods'.Hackwood continued working for Wedgwood at Etruria for 63 years and produced many bas reliefs and works that can be authenticated.
Henry Webber - Modeller (1754 - 1826)
Sculptor, modeller to Wedgwood and head of the ornamental department at Etruria from 1785 to 1806. Henry Webber was the son of a Swiss sculptor, and a pupil of John Bacon, and was recommended to Josiah Wedgwood by Sir Joshua Reynolds. He arrived at Etruria in June 1782, and by January 1785 he had signed a seven year contract with the factory. In 1787 was sent to Rome - ‘….for the purpose of making Models Drawings and other improvements in the Arts of Modelling and Designing for the benefit of ….. Josiah Wedgwood.’ He was directly involved with the modelling of the bas-relief figures for the reproduction of the Portland Vase.
William Wood - Modeller (1746 - 1829)
Modeller at the Wedgwood factory from the early days of the founder. His father, Aaron, had been apprenticed to John and Thomas Wedgwood of the Big House, Burslem, the celebrated salt glaze manufacturers. Later Aaron became chief modeller at Thomas Whieldon’s factory, and had also done some work for Josiah as early as 1761. At the age of fifteen his son William was apprenticed to Josiah to learn pressing and ‘handleing’, and Wedgwood referred to the lad in a letter to Thomas Bentley at the end of 1767 saying – ‘I have just taken a Boy apprentice for seven years to Model, & am beginning to teach him to draw...’ – he added that Wood – ‘...has good fingers, & is a pretty active well-behav’d Lad.’ Soon William was working on modelling tablewares – ultimately becoming chief modeller of ‘useful’ wares. His work was held in such esteem that many years later he joined the team which included Josiah, William Hackwood and Henry Webber, in working on perfecting the copy of the Portland Vase in jasper.