Borrowing the vase

Lady Margaret Harley, who had become the Duchess of Portland on her marriage in 1734, had a private museum in which she amassed a diverse collection of objects. She was, wrote Horace Walpole, ‘…a simple woman, and intoxicated only by empty vases’. She purchased Hamilton’s Barberini vase in 1784 to add to her museum, all of which, including the vase, was sold in 1786, the year after her death.

The entire contents of the Portland museum, totalling over 4000 lots, were sold between April and June 1786. The vase – a fanciful representation of it featured prominently in the engraved frontispiece of the auction catalogue – formed lot 4155. Possibly acting on the advice of Sir Joshua Reynolds, the Duchess’s son, the 3rd Duke of Portland, bought the vase, paying 980 guineas (£1,029).

Three days later Josiah signed a loan receipt for the vase, with the express intention of copying it in his unique jasper body. ‘You will be pleased, I am sure, to hear what a treasure is just now put into my hands, I mean the exquisite Barberini vase with which you enriched this island, and which, now … we may call … the Portland vase…’ Josiah write to Sir William Hamilton on 24 June 1786.

Images

The sale catalogue of the Duchess of Portland's museum, depicting the vase

The sale catalogue of the Duchess of Portland's museum, depicting the vase