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Portland Vase

Vase
1793 (made)
Artist/Maker
Place of origin

Josiah Wedgwood's (1730-1795) copy of the famous Portland Vase is seen as the culmination of his career as ceramics manufacturer. Wedgwood was aware of the vase's fame as the pinnacle of the art of Roman cameo-glass and he knew that being able to copy it in his newly developed jasper clay meant not only directly benefitting from this fame but also demonstrating the technical and artistic superiority of his wares, rivalling that of antiquity.

It was probably the sculptor John Flaxman jr who made Wedgwood aware of the vase being in England in February 1785: 'I wish you may soon come to town to see Wm Hamilton's Vase, it is the finest production of Art that has been brought to England and seems to be the very apex of perfection to which you are endeavouring to bring your bisque & jasper; it is made of dark glass with white enamel figures. The Vase is about a foot high & the figures between 5 & 6 inches, engraved in the same manner as a Cameo & of the grandest & most perfect Greek Sculpture.' (V&A Wedgwood Collection, MS E2-30188).

The vase had been in the posession of the Dowager Duchess of Portland and was put up for sale after her death in 1785. Her son, the 3rd Duke of Portland bought the vase and lent it to Josiah Wedgwood to copy it. Wedgwood put his best modellers, including Henry Webber (1754-1826), William Hackwood (c. 1757-1839) and William Wood (1746-1808) to work under his personal supervision. He encountered various technical difficulties of which trials pieces in the V&A Wedgwood Collection tell the story. He devised a special mixture of jasper colours to imitate the blue-black colour of the original glass vase and tried to emulate the translucency of the cut glass with very thin white reliefs as well as painting with diluted liquid clay.

In September 1789 Wedgwood achieved a first perfect copy which he sent to his friend Erasmus Darwin who later included a description of it in his poem The Botanic Garden together with an illustration by William Blake. Wedgwood made the decision to sell his vases via subscription and the antiquarian Thomas Hope, the original owner of this vase, was one of the subscribers. The vase was put on show to a chosen audience at Wedgwood's London showroom in Greek Street and admission was by ticket only. Sir Joshua Reynolds, president of the Royal Academy, certified Wedgwood's Portland Vase to be, 'a correct and faithful imitation both in regards to general effect, and the most minute detail of the parts.'

Wedgwood's son Josiah II together with his cousin Thomas Byerley set out on a tour across continental Europe in May 1790 to promote the vase at the European courts and their signatures can be found in various visitor books.
read Wedgwood: An introduction Wedgwood is one of the most recognisable names in British ceramics. For over 260 years the company has set trends, producing fashionable, desirable ceramics for a broad range of consumers. The company's founder Josiah Wedgwood I (1730 – 95) has been celebrated as a pioneer in manufacture, ...
Object details
Category
Object type
Materials and techniques
White jasper reliefs applied to a black jasper body
Brief description
Vase, first edition 'Portland Vase' owned by the antiquarian Thomas Hope, jasper, made at the factory of Josiah Wedgwood, Etruria, Staffordshire, 1793
Physical description
Black two-handled jasper vase with flared neck, decorated with white reliefs, copying the design of the Roman 'Portland' or 'Barberini Vase'; the base of the handles is decorated with lions' masks, the relief scenes are running around the lower half of the bulbous body; an additional relief scene underneath the vase.
Dimensions
  • Height: 25.5cm
  • Diameter: 19cm
Content description
The vase depicts two scenes divided by two lions' masks on the base of the handles.

The first scene shows three figures: a seated male facing right, a reclining female figure with her right arm raised above her head and a downturned lit torch in her left hand, a seated female figure with a staff in her left hand, facing left.

The second scene depicts a standing male under a column section facing right and holding a cloth in his right hand. His left arm is extended with his hand resting on the upper arm of a seated female figure who in turn is touching his inner upper arm. The seated female figures is gazing up to the male and has a snake-like creature on her left side. Above the female figure a cupid with bow and a torch in his hands is depicted. The background behind the cupid is decorated with a tree. On the right of the scene is a second standing male figure depicted. His right foot is resting on a step at the bottom of the tree, his chin is propped up on his right fist, with his elbow on his right thigh.

The relief underneath the vase depicts the bust of a male figure in profile. He is dressed with a Phrygian cap on his head, a layered garment with both long and short sleeves and a cloak. His right hand is raised with his index finger close to his lips. His gaze is directed towards the ground. In the background a section of leaves can be seen.

Credit line
V&A Wedgwood Collection. Presented by Art Fund with major support from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, private donations and a public appeal.
Object history
This vase is a copy after the famous Roman cameo-glass vase once owned by the Duchess of Portland, hence it is known as the Portland Vase.

The original Roman cameo-glass vase, known as the Barberini vase, is believed to have been made by Alexandrian craftsmen in the reign of the first Roman emperor Augustus (27 BC - AD 14).

It was brought back to England by Sir William Hamilton who sold it to the Duchess of Portland. On the Duchess's 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.

Josiah Wedgwood borrowed the original vase from the Duke and commenced his nearly four year long struggle to copy the vase in his jasper body. Wedgwood worked with his chief artists, Henry Webber and modellers William Hackwood and William Wood and 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 he 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 by Wedgwood's son Josiah II and his nephew Thomas Byerley. 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.

The previous owner of this particular vase, the antiquarian Thomas Hope, was one of the original subscribers.
Association
Summary
Josiah Wedgwood's (1730-1795) copy of the famous Portland Vase is seen as the culmination of his career as ceramics manufacturer. Wedgwood was aware of the vase's fame as the pinnacle of the art of Roman cameo-glass and he knew that being able to copy it in his newly developed jasper clay meant not only directly benefitting from this fame but also demonstrating the technical and artistic superiority of his wares, rivalling that of antiquity.



It was probably the sculptor John Flaxman jr who made Wedgwood aware of the vase being in England in February 1785: 'I wish you may soon come to town to see Wm Hamilton's Vase, it is the finest production of Art that has been brought to England and seems to be the very apex of perfection to which you are endeavouring to bring your bisque & jasper; it is made of dark glass with white enamel figures. The Vase is about a foot high & the figures between 5 & 6 inches, engraved in the same manner as a Cameo & of the grandest & most perfect Greek Sculpture.' (V&A Wedgwood Collection, MS E2-30188).



The vase had been in the posession of the Dowager Duchess of Portland and was put up for sale after her death in 1785. Her son, the 3rd Duke of Portland bought the vase and lent it to Josiah Wedgwood to copy it. Wedgwood put his best modellers, including Henry Webber (1754-1826), William Hackwood (c. 1757-1839) and William Wood (1746-1808) to work under his personal supervision. He encountered various technical difficulties of which trials pieces in the V&A Wedgwood Collection tell the story. He devised a special mixture of jasper colours to imitate the blue-black colour of the original glass vase and tried to emulate the translucency of the cut glass with very thin white reliefs as well as painting with diluted liquid clay.



In September 1789 Wedgwood achieved a first perfect copy which he sent to his friend Erasmus Darwin who later included a description of it in his poem The Botanic Garden together with an illustration by William Blake. Wedgwood made the decision to sell his vases via subscription and the antiquarian Thomas Hope, the original owner of this vase, was one of the subscribers. The vase was put on show to a chosen audience at Wedgwood's London showroom in Greek Street and admission was by ticket only. Sir Joshua Reynolds, president of the Royal Academy, certified Wedgwood's Portland Vase to be, 'a correct and faithful imitation both in regards to general effect, and the most minute detail of the parts.'



Wedgwood's son Josiah II together with his cousin Thomas Byerley set out on a tour across continental Europe in May 1790 to promote the vase at the European courts and their signatures can be found in various visitor books.
Other number
5268 - Wedgwood Museum Accession Number
Collection
Accession number
WE.8000-2014

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Record createdAugust 13, 2021
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