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Vase - 'First Edition' copy of the Portland Vase
  • 'First Edition' copy of the Portland Vase
    Hackwood, William
  • Enlarge image

'First Edition' copy of the Portland Vase

  • Object:


  • Place of origin:

    Staffordshire (made)

  • Date:

    ca. 1790 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Hackwood, William (modeller)
    Webber, Henry (modeller)
    Josiah Wedgwood's factory (manufacturer)

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Blue-black Jasper, with applied and hand-finished reliefs

  • Credit Line:

    Transferred from the Museum of Practical Geology, Jermyn Street

  • Museum number:


  • Gallery location:

    British Galleries, Room 118; The Wolfson Gallery, case 3

There are three reasons why Josiah Wedgwood (1730–95) was a uniquely important potter. First, he had a thorough understanding of the chemistry of pottery and developed or perfected a range of new materials, including Jasper, the fine stoneware of which this vase is made, Black Basalt and the creamware he marketed as ‘Queen’s Ware’. Second, he was in touch with leading architects, artists and collectors, and under their influence he promoted the neo-classical styles that were then becoming fashionable. Third, he was an astute businessman and energetically marketed his wares. The combination of technical excellence, smart classical design and clever marketing strategies made his pottery very fashionable, both in Britain and abroad. This combination is exemplified by his copies of the Portland Vase, his last great achievement.

The Portland Vase, a Roman cameo-cut glass vase of about 40–30 BC, was one of the most celebrated classical antiquities in Wedgwood’s day. He first attempted to reproduce it in 1786, and he spent over three years matching the subtlety of the lapidary-worked reliefs of the original. His copies were made in Jasper, the stoneware body he developed following thousands of experiments in the 1770s and which is still in production today. This can be stained a range of colours to provide a background for applied moulded reliefs. Having obtained the approval of leading connoisseurs and taste-makers, such as the artist Sir Joshua Reynolds, Wedgwood exhibited his perfected ‘First Edition’ copy in London in 1790, showing it to a select audience who had applied for admission tickets in advance.

Place of Origin

Staffordshire (made)


ca. 1790 (made)


Hackwood, William (modeller)
Webber, Henry (modeller)
Josiah Wedgwood's factory (manufacturer)

Materials and Techniques

Blue-black Jasper, with applied and hand-finished reliefs


Height: 25.4 cm, Width: 18.73 cm

Object history note

This first edition vase is said to have come from the collection of naturalist Charles Darwin, whose father, Dr Robert Waring Darwin, bought it from Wedgwood in 1793

Historical significance: Wedgwood's copy of the Portland Vase is a major example of the fashion for 'Antique' vases during the later part of the 18th century and of Wedgwood's pre-eminence in the production of vases in pottery. Wedgwood started making pottery vases during the 1760s and 1770s, initially in his variegated and Black Basalt wares. The vase was the symbol of the highly fashionable 'Antique' style and there was a great demand for Wedgwood vases. The copy of the Portland Vase, perfected in 1790, was Wegwood's most celebrated vase and one of the final achievements of his career. The first perfected copy of the Portland vase generated considerable public interest when it was exhibited at Sir Joseph Banks' Soho Square house and then at Wedgwood's Greek Street Show Rooms. 1,900 tickets to view the vase at the show rooms were printed.
Josiah Wedgwood's first copies of the Portland Vase are ranked among the grestest technical acievements of the potter's craft. Wedgwood spent a number of years perfecting a technique for the production of ornamental vases in Jasper ware. In 1777 he discovered that the use of a coarse body, disguised by a thin dip of a fine body, gave the vase sufficent strength to hold its shape during firing. Several years of trials were needed before this technique could be satisfactorily applied to vases. The first of Wegwoods Jasper vases were shown in 1781/2 at his Greek Street showrooms. During the following ten years he continued to experiment with colours, shapes and ornament. Between 1786 an 1790 much of his time was devoted to experiments and trials devoted to the reproduction in Jasper of the Portland vase. These were greatly aided by his invention of a 'pyrometer' for measuring the temperature in pottery kilns.

Descriptive line

'First Edition' copy of the Portland Vase, jasper with black 'dip' and white reliefs, English: Wedgwood, 1790-95

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Baker, Malcolm, and Brenda Richardson (eds.), A Grand Design: The Art of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London: V&A Publications, 1999.
See Ceramics and Glass Collection Object Information file
Young, Hilary (ed.). The Genius of Wedgwood. London : Victoria & Albert Museum, 1995

Labels and date

British Galleries:
Wedgwood's reproduction of the Portland Vase was his last great technical achievement. At the time, the original vase of coloured, carved glass was one of the most admired Roman antiquities. Wedgwood spent four years trying to match the colour and subtlety of the reliefs of the original. [27/03/2003]


Jasper ware


Jasper dip


British Galleries; Ceramics


Ceramics Collection

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