Portland Vase

Shortly before closing time on 7 February 1845 at the British Museum in London, a 'stout young man' shattered one of the most famous artefacts from the ancient world into some 200 fragments. The culprit was detained and later arrested and taken to Bow Street police station. This nineteenth century vandal, who gave his name as William Lloyd, could offer no valid reason for damaging the work of art, other than that he had been 'indulging in intemperance for the week before'. The classic gem was the Barberini Vase, one of the finest examples of ancient cameo glass in the world, and the inspiration for the Wedgwood Portland Vase. A copy of Josiah’s ceramic masterpiece was used by the British Museum’s restorer as a guideline to re-assembling the hundreds of pieces of the vase back to its former glory.

The Barberini or Portland Vase probably originated in Rome at the hands of craftsmen trained in Alexandria, Egypt, where cameo-glass manufacturing techniques were first practiced. The earliest record of the Barberini Vase can be traced back to the 16th century, when it was noted as being at the Palazzo Madama, in the possession of Cardinal del Monte, who purchased it around 1582. It was later acquired by the Duchess of Portland, a great collector of art, literature and natural history. The acquisition of the Barberini Vase in 1784 was the crowning glory of her collecting habits of nearly half a century. She promptly secreted the relic within her exclusive Portland Museum – she but was to live less than a year to enjoy her prized possession. When the contents of the Portland Museum were auctioned, the vase was purchased for 980 guineas (£1,029) by the third Duke of Portland – one of the Duchess's children. The vase was soon loaned by its new owner to Josiah Wedgwood for the purposes of emulating its form and decoration in Jasper. Wedgwood was jubilant. But he was soon to discover that the task in hand was to prove extremely difficult, if not, he thought, insurmountable. For nearly four years Wedgwood, his son Josiah II, and several of the foremost artists and modellers of the day experimented and produced trials. Wedgwood commenced a new crop of experiments to perfect the Jasper body even further, but lamented long and loud in his correspondence about his self-imposed ambitions.

He wrote ruefully to Sir William Hamilton on 24 June 1786 (just two weeks after obtaining the vase): "When I first engaged in this work, and had Montfaucon only to copy, I proceeded with spirit, on sufficient assurance that I should be able to equal, or excel, if permitted, that copy of the vase; but now that I can indulge myself with full and repeated examinations of the original work itself, my crest is much fallen."

Bringing Jasper to the pinnacle of perfection necessary to emulate the vitrified surface of the original was to prove an immense challenge. His modellers produced exquisite working moulds of the bas-relief figures – but as Wedgwood discussed in a letter to Sir William Hamilton: "But my great work is the Portland Vase. I have now finished a third and last edition of the figures…my present difficulty is to give those beautiful shades to the thin and distant parts of the figures, for which the original artist availed himself of the semi-transparency of the white glass, cutting it down nearer and nearer to the blue ground, in proportion as he wished to increase the depth of shade. But the case is very different with me. I must depend upon an agent, whose efforts are neither at my command, nor to be perceived at the time they are produced. Viz, the action of fire upon my compositions… I am now engaged in a course of experiments for determining these points with as much precision as the nature of the case will admit of."

Even after the production of a successful vase around September 1789 – the first of his famed 'First Edition' – Wedgwood was still engaged in active experimentation. On 2 May 1790 he wrote at some length to his son Josiah II from the Wedgwood Showrooms at Portland House, Greek Street, London, discussing 'surface cracking': "Two trials of Barberini black. With respect to colour, they are very much alike & both very nearly the same as the vase I have with me. But in another respect, the total absence of cracks on the surface, that made of an equal mixture of blue and black, and then dipt in black, has the preference very greatly."

Given that the Portland Vase can be regarded as the pinnacle of Josiah's pioneering achievements, the details concerning the production of the vase (and indeed the actual numbers of copies produced within the confines of the First Edition) will probably never be known for certain. Information revealed in his oven books (the firing records of the wares emerging from the bottle ovens of the Etruria factory) document the production of some 43 vases. To accompany his First Edition, Wedgwood produced a booklet entitled 'Account of the Barbarini (sic) now Portland Vase' and he also arranged showings of copies of the vase in Jasper at various venues – including (by admission ticket only) Portland House in London. He jubilantly stated: "I have now the pleasure to find that my imitation of this vase, after strict comparison with the original, has given perfect satisfaction to the most distinguished artists… in Britain."

Perhaps the most valued testimonial bestowed upon the Jasper Portland Vase was made by Sir Joshua Reynolds, founder and first President of the Royal Academy, London. He ventured: "I can declare it to be a correct and faithful imitation, both in regard to the general effect, and the most minute detail of the parts."

During the 19th and 20th centuries, a number of 'prestigious' versions of the vase emerged from the Etruria factory. The production of a Portland Vase remains today as one of the ultimate challenges of the skills and artistry of Wedgwood potters. It takes nearly two hours of highly concentrated effort for an expert Wedgwood thrower and a turner to prepare and shape a 14-pound piece of Jasper clay into the distinctive Portland shape. The figure-making and ornamenting takes nearly two days, and firing at 1175° Centigrade, accounts for 30 hours.

However, it is those famous First Edition copies of the late 18th and early 19th centuries that realise high prices in the auction houses. Several museums and national institutions such as the Victoria and Albert and the British Museums in London, the Fogg Art Museum in Boston and the Museum of Art in Birmingham, Alabama hold First Edition examples. Other examples are to be found in the hands of individual private collectors both at home and abroad. The Wedgwood Museum is fortunate in having three First Edition copies in its Collection – including Josiah Wedgwood's own vase, number 25. Also housed at the Wedgwood Museum are two trial vases, one illustrating the tribulations Josiah faced with 'blistering' of the ceramic body and 'fracturing' of the bas relief ornaments. There are also medallions which show Josiah's experimentation with shading techniques, plus some original wax models on slate.

Today, Wedgwood still views the Portland Vase reproduction as its crowning achievement and most important icon, and an outline image of the vase is now incorporated in the modern Wedgwood backstamp.


The Portland Vase, © Wedgwood Museum

The Portland Vase
© Wedgwood Museum