Creating the Portland Vase

Wedgwood and his artists laboured for nearly four years to reproduce the Portland Vase faithfully. The copy was to be in Josiah’s acclaimed jasper, and he immediately embarked upon a new series of experiments to refine the body, to pay homage to the antique gem and emulate the dark blue – almost black – glass body with white glass figures. Several modellers, including William Hackwood, worked on the project, which Josiah oversaw with his son Josiah II.

Moulds were taken, and plaster and wax models produced, to ensure absolute accuracy in all respects. The oven book or firing records of the factory record the many failures they experienced during this self-imposed task, and the damaged experimental copies bear eloquent testimony to their endeavours to produce the epitome of Wedgwood’s ceramic career. The pyrometer Josiah had developed helped, however, and success was achieved in late 1789.

Wedgwood realised the antique vase’s unusual form signified it had suffered damage at its base, which had been made good by the application of a circular cameo-glass disc featuring a figure in a conical, or Phrygian, cap. This figure depicts a young man with his finger to his lips, perhaps Paris, who unwittingly started the Trojan wars by awarding a golden apple to Aphrodite, goddess of love, in return for the hand of the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen of Troy. The conical, so-called Phrygian, cap became a symbol of a cap of liberty.


Wax model on slate for the Portland Vase

Wax model on slate for the Portland Vase