by Jessica Walthew, Conservator at Cooper Hewitt
Mr. Pergolesi’s Curious Things (On view: Oct. 1, 2022- Jan. 22, 2023) includes one of my favorite objects in the museum’s collection: a copy of the Portland vase by English ceramics manufacturer Wedgwood, made in the mid-19th century. The original Portland vase is a marvel of ancient cameo glass production. Thought to have been made in the 1st century BC or early 1st century AD, it was excavated just outside Rome just before 1600 and subsequently held in the famous Barberini collection in Italy. It was a prized sight for Grand Tour travelers visiting Rome in the 17th and 18th centuries. The vase was among the antique sources of inspiration for artists and designers like Pergolesi who established the neoclassical vocabulary of the late 18th and early 19th century.
Eventually the vase made its way to England via the British ambassador to Naples, Sir William Hamilton (1730-1803), who sold it to the Dowager Duchess of Portland (1715-1785), from whom it now takes its name. The original glass amphora-shaped vase has been since 1945 in the collection of the British Museum and has been on view almost continually since 1810 when it was placed on loan by the then Duke of Portland (with the exception of a few restoration campaigns, more on this below). Since its rediscovery in the 16th century, the vase has inspired many copies and replicas.1 This piece, technically a ceramic copy of a glass original, did not make the cut for our Year of Glass series, but you can see more of those featured objects on the museum’s blog.
Roman glassmaking ranged from relatively plain everyday vessels for containing oils and perfumes to virtuosic luxury items for elite consumption. The Portland vase was made in cameo glass: a technique in which two colors of glass are layered and then the outer layer is carved away to leave a design in relief (here, white on dark cobalt blue, which appears almost black depending on the lighting). The identification of the two scenes with graceful classical figures has been a topic of unresolved debate for centuries. The vase’s series of famous owners after its rediscovery and its purported association with an imperial Roman tomb led to its fame throughout Europe and its description and illustration in numerous antiquarian prints and books. Pergolesi’s drawing of the Portland vase, ca. 1776-77, part of his Designs for Various Ornaments, was clearly made from secondhand information rather than from viewing the actual vase in the flesh. Pergolesi’s source was a monochrome print image in an early 18th-century encyclopedia of the ancient world, (Montaucon’s Antiquity Explained, an example of which is on view in the gallery or in this digitized edition.) Rather than its stark contrast of white on dark background, the vase was translated by Pergolesi into a red-and-black color scheme typical of Greek antiquities.
After the vase was brought to England in 1783 by Hamilton and presented to the Society of Antiquaries, its fame continued to grow. It changed hands several times before leading ceramics producer Josiah Wedgwood was able to borrow it with the aim of copying it. Wedgwood worked for three years to produce a copy of the vase in his signature jasperware (a matte finished stoneware body, the black version of which is called “Basaltware” like this urn also currently on view in the Pergolesi exhibition). Wedgwood finally achieved an acceptable copy in 1789 after arranging to borrow the original from the Duke of Portland for a year of close study in 1786. Since then, copies of the Portland vase have become a signature of the Wedgwood company; the vase appears on the company’s letterhead (image) and the design has been produced intermittently to the present day. While “first edition” copies made before Josiah Wedgwood’s death in 1795 are highly valued, from a conservator’s perspective the more divergent copies are probably more interesting. Some of the copies made during the Victorian period (in the later 19th century) were remodeled to partially clothe the nude figures reflecting the prevailing sense of propriety. Personally, I find the mistakes most intriguing, especially the blistered improperly fired early copies made during the lengthy development process, and still held at the Wedgwood Museum, that speak to the technological challenges of manufacturing the vase’s fine details.
- add image of letterhead from curatorial files
Cooper Hewitt’s copy is quite unusual. Wedgwood’s early Portland copies were typically made by layering applied molded decoration (later refined with additional hand-carving) in white onto a background color. While most Wedgwood copies were made in the matte finish (matte Jasper, Basalt, and Parian wares were very popular for Wedgwood’s neoclassical designs) this copy dates to the mid-19th century at a time when the factory was having issues with its typical clay bodies (see Reilly 1995). Cooper Hewitt’s vase appears to be molded entirely in a white Parian or “Carrara” ware (both names referencing types of white Italian marbles) and then overglazed in a dark cobalt blue “Mazarin blue”—a surface treatment yielding a shiny finish actually much closer to the original glass vessel it copies.
Many of Wedgwood’s copies, even those of later editions like ours, also maintain an anachronistic feature. While the glass Portland vase has by now been restored many times, at first, a medallion with a figure wearing a Phrygian cap (thought to be Paris) was integrated into the vase’s base. The vase was damaged by a purportedly drunken visitor while on view at the British Museum in 1845, and when it was restored, the medallion was removed, no longer thought to pertain to the piece after all. Some pieces unable to be reintegrated during that restoration campaign were lost for a time, and only located sometime later– the vase was restored yet again in the 1940s and 1980s (see Williams 1989).
Two thousand years after its creation, the Portland vase continues to fascinate. For a work so often broken, repaired, copied, and imitated, this intrigue is arguably owing to, rather than in spite of its many variants and versions. While there may be only one glass original, the many copies of the Portland vase together narrate the long and interesting history of this iconic design as a technical triumph repeated (though more often failed) many times over.
Mr. Pergolesi’s Curious Things now on view until January, 22nd.
Thank you to Anne Forschler-Tarrasch, Birmingham Museum of Art and Rebecca Klarner, Victoria & Albert Museum Wedgwood Collection for contributing information on the history of Wedgwood Portland vase copies.
“Cameo Glass” (2002) Corning Museum of Glass, Glass Dictionary.
Nigel Williams. (1989) The breaking and remaking of the Portland Vase. British Museum Publications, London.
Robin Reilly. (1995) Wedgwood. The New Illustrated Dictionary. Antique Collectors’ Club, Woodbridge, Suffolk.