Portland Vase

Portland Vase

The Portland Vase is a first century BC Roman cameo glass vase, which served as an inspiration to many glass and porcelain makers from about the beginning of the 18th century onwards. Since 1945 the vase has belonged to the British Museum in London (reference - GR 1945,0927.1) ; on display in Room 70, Rome: City & Empire).

The vase is about 25 centimetres high and 56 in circumference. It is made of violet-blue glass, and surrounded with a single continuous white glass cameo depicting seven figures (humans and gods).

On the bottom was a cameo-glass disc, also in blue and white, showing a head, presumed to be of Paris or Priam on the basis of the Phrygian cap it wears. This roundel clearly does not belong to the vase, and has been displayed separately since 1845. It may have been added to mend a break in antiquity or after, or the result of a conversion from an original amphora form (paralleled by a similar blue-glass cameo vessel from Pompeii) - it was definitely attached to the bottom from at least 1826.


The meaning of the images on the vase is unclear and controversial. Interpretations of the portrayals have included that of a marine setting (due to the presence of a ketos or sea-snake), and of a marriage theme/context (i.e. as a wedding gift). Many scholars (even Charles Towneley) have concluded that the figures do not fit into a single iconographic set. Dr Jerome Eisenberg has argued on this basis in MINERVA magazine that the vase was produced in the 16th Century AD and not antiquity [http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/arts/3169929.stm] , but this theory has not been widely accepted.

Some interpretations of the 2 main scenes are:

Life story


Based on the scenes and the style of the work, the Portland Vase is generally believed to have been made in Rome some time between 30 BC and 20 BC [The Corning Museum of Glass, Journal of Glass Studies Vol 32 1990, following research by William Gudenrath, Kenneth Painter and David Whitehouse, Director of the Corning Museum.] .

Cameo-glass vessels were probably all made within about two generations as experiments when the blowing technique (discovered in about 50 BC) was still in its infancy. Recent research has shown that the Portland vase, like the majority of cameo-glass vessels, was made by the dip-overlay method, whereby an elongated bubble of glass was partially dipped into a crucible (fire-resistant container) of white glass, before the two were blown together. After cooling the white layer was cut away to form the design.

The work towards making a 19th century copy proved to be incredibly painstaking, and based on this it is believed that the Portland Vase must have taken its original artisan no less than two years to produce.

The cutting was probably performed by a skilled gem-cutter [http://www.rosemarie-lierke.de/English/Cameo_glass/cameo_glass.html] . It is believed that the cutter may have been Dioskourides , as gems cut by him of a similar period and signed by him, (Vollenweider 1966, seeGem in the collection of the Duke of Devonshire "Diomedes stealing the Palladium". This is confirmed by The Corning Museum in their 190 page study of the vase-see above.)


Legend has it that it was discovered by Fabrizio Lazzaro in the sepulchre of the Emperor Alexander Severus, at Monte del Grano near Rome, and excavated some time around 1582.

The first possible historical reference to the vase is in a 1601 letter from the French scholar Nicolas Claude Fabri de Peiresc to the painter Peter Paul Rubens, where it is recorded as in the collection of Cardinal Francesco Maria Del Monte in Italy. It then passed to the Barberini family collection (which also included sculptures such as the Barberini Faun and Barberini Apollo) where it remained for some two hundred years, being one of the treasures of Maffeo Berberini, later Pope Urban VIII (1623-1644).

1778 to present

Sir William Hamilton, British ambassador in Naples, purchased it in 1778 from James Byres. Byres, a Scottish art dealer, had acquired it after it was sold by Donna Cornelia Barberini-Colonna, Princess of Palestrina. She had inherited the vase from the Barberini family. Hamilton brought it to England on his next leave, after the death of his first wife, Catherine. In 1784, with the assistance of his niece, Mary, he arranged a private sale to Margaret Cavendish-Harley, widow of William Bentinck, 2nd Duke of Portland and so dowager Duchess of Portland [http://www.harleygallery.co.uk/event.php?pg_id=3&range=0] . She passed it to her son William Cavendish-Bentinck, 3rd Duke of Portland in 1786.

The 3rd Duke loaned the original vase to Josiah Wedgwood (see below) and then to the British Museum for safe-keeping, at which point it was dubbed the "Portland Vase". It was deposited there permanently by the fourth Duke in 1810, after a friend of his broke its base. The original Roman vase has remained in the British Museum ever since 1810, apart from three years (1929-32) when William Cavendish-Bentinck, 6th Duke of Portland put it up for sale at Christie's, but it failed to reach its reserve. It was purchased by the Museum from William Cavendish-Bentinck, 7th Duke of Portland in 1945 with the aid of a bequest from James Rose Vallentin. In 1951 Arthur C. Clarke mentioned the Vase as having been rescued by time travellers from the future just before the destruction of the Earth, in his science fiction short story "All the Time in the World."


The 3rd Duke lent the vase to Josiah Wedgwood, who had already had it described to him as "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" by the sculptor John Flaxman. Wedgwood devoted four years of painstaking trials at duplicating the vase - not in glass but in jasperware. He had problems with his copies ranging from cracking and blistering (clearly visible on the example at the Victoria and Albert Museum) to the reliefs 'lifting' during the firing, and in 1786 he feared that he could never apply the Jasper relief thinly enough to match the glass original's subtlety and delicacy. He finally managed to perfect it in 1790, with the issue of the "first-edition" of copies (with some of this edition, including the V&A one, copying the cameo's delicacy by a combination of undercutting and shading the reliefs in grey), and it marks his last major achievement.

Wedgwood put the first edition on private show between April and May 1790, with that exhibition proving so popular that visitor numbers had to be restricted by only printing 1900 tickets, before going on show in his public London showrooms. (One ticket to the private exhibition, illustrated by Samuel Alkin and printed with 'Admission to see Mr Wedgwood's copy of The Portland Vase, Greek Street, Soho, between 12 o'clock and 5', was bound into the Wedgwood catalogue on view in the Victoria and Albert Museum's British Galleries.) As well as the V&A copy (said to have come from the collection of Wedgwood's grandson, the naturalist Charles Darwin) [cite book|author=Jackson, Anna (ed.)|title= V&A: A Hundred Highlights|publisher=V&A Publications|year=2001] , others are held at the Fitzwilliam Museum (this is the copy sent by Wedgwood to Erasmus Darwin which his descendants loaned to the Museum in 1963 and later sold it to them) and the Department of Prehistory and Europe at the British Museum.

The Vase also inspired a 19th century competition to duplicate its cameo-work in glass, with Benjamin Richardson offering a £1000 prize to anyone who could achieve that feat. Taking three years, glass maker Philip Pargeter made a copy and John Northwood engraved it, to win the prize. This copy is in the Corning Glass Museum in New York.

Vandalism and reconstruction

*On February 7, 1845, the vase was shattered to pieces by the 'intemperate' vandal William Lloyd, who had drunkenly thrown a nearby sculpture on top of the case smashing both it and the vase to pieces. The vase was pieced together, with fair success, though the restorer was unable to replace all of the pieces and thirty-seven small fragments were lost. It appears they had been put into a box and forgotten about. In 1948, the Keeper Bernard Ashmole received thirty seven fragments in a box from a Mr Croker of Putney.who did not know what they were. In 1845 Mr Doubleday, the first restorer did not know where these fragments went. A colleague had taken these to a Mr Gabb, a box maker, who was asked to make a box with thirty seven compartments, one for each fragment. The colleague died, the box was never collected, Mr Gabb died and his executrix a Miss Revees asked Mr Croker to ask the Museum if they could identify them.The Duke's descendants finally sold the vase to the museum in 1945.
*By 1948, the previous restoration appeared aged and it was decided to restore the vase, but the restorer was only successful in replacing three of the fragments. The adhesive from this weakened over the 30 years it was present and by 1986 the joints rattled when the vase was gently tapped.
*The third and current reconstruction took place in 1987, when a new generation of conservators assessed the vase's condition during its appearance as the focal piece of an international exhibition of Roman glass and, at the conclusion of the exhibition, it was decided to go ahead with reconstruction and stabilisation. The treatment had a lot of press coverage as well as interest from scholars. The vase was extensively photographed and drawn to record the position of fragments before dismantling, and the BBC filmed the conservation process. All previous adhesives had failed, so to find one that would last for much longer, conservation scientists at the Museum tested many adhesives for long term stability. Finally, an epoxy resin that had shown excellent ageing properties was chosen. Reassembly of the vase was made more difficult as the edges of some fragments were found to have been filed down during the previous restorations. Nevertheless, all of the fragments were replaced except for a few small splinters. Any areas that were still missing were gap-filled with a blue-coloured epoxy resin or, where loss occurred to the figures, with white-coloured resin.

The newly conserved Portland Vase was returned to display. Little sign of the original damage is visible now and, except for light cleaning, the vase should not require major conservation work for many years to come.


External links

* [http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/gr/t/the_portland_vase.aspx British Museum - catalogue entry for the vase]
* [http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/article_index/c/portland_vase_-_conservation.aspx British Museum - conservation history of the vase]
* [http://www.dicamillocompanion.com/houses_hgpm.asp?ID=333 Bulstrode Park (where the Duchess of Portland kept the Vase) entry from The DiCamillo Companion to British & Irish Country Houses]
* [http://www.lesleypyke.com/page/Portland%20Vase%20Study.htm Independent study of the figures on clear crystal]


*L. Burn, "The British Museum book of Greek and Roman art" (London, The British Museum Press, 1991), pp. 204-5
*H. Tait (ed.), "Five thousand years of glass", 2nd paperback edition (London, The British Museum Press, 1999), pp. 4-5, fig.75
*I. Jenkins and K. Sloan, "Vases and Volcanoes: Sir William Hamilton and his Collection" (London, The British Museum Press, 1996), pp. 187-88, no. 63
*V. Tatton-Brown and W. Gudenrath, "Catalogue of Greek and Roman glass in the British Museum II" (London, The British Museum Press, forthcoming)
*D.B. Harden and others, "The British Museum: masterpieces of glass, a selection" (London, 1968)
*K. Painter and D. Whitehouse, "The History of the Portland Vase", "Journal of Glass Studies", 32 (1990), pp. 24-84
*Susan Walker, "The Portland Vase" (London, British Museum Press, 2004)

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