Portland Vase

Several years ago three Qing dynasty vases situated on the main staircase at the Fitzwilliam Museum were destroyed by a man called Nick Flynn, who fell down the stairs after tripping over his 31_vase_glshoelaces (“I snagged my shoelace, missed a step and crash, bang, wallop”). The vases were subsequently restored, but their fate echoes that of the original of another exhibit in the museum, the copy of the Portland Vase made by Josiah Wedgwood in the 1780s, which was  smashed in 1845 in the British Museum by a drunken maniac called William Lloyd, who picked up a nearby statue and hurled it across the room. It was subsequently restored, but 37 slivers were left over; it was not until the late 1980s that a full restoration was possible.

 © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons

© Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons

The original Portland Vase was manufactured around 1-25 AD in cameo glass. It was first recorded in modern times in Rome in about 1600, and later came into the possession of Sir William Hamilton, British ambassador to Naples and noted antiquarian (and husband of Mrs Hamilton, who conducted a notorious affair with Lord Nelson). Hamilton sold it to the dowager Duchess of Portland; it was then lent by the third Duke to Wedgwood, who devoted four years to making his copies – his last major achievement – at his Etruria plant in Staffordshire.

The process was painstaking, and numerous defective copies were made before the first ‘perfect’ copy – which was instantly sent to Derby, to Erasmus Darwin,  (1731-1802), brother in law of Josiah Wedgwood and grandfather of Charles Darwin (to whom the copy of the vase in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, is thought to have belonged). It is this copy that is in the Fitzwilliam (or the extant copies, the Fitzwilliam’s also bears the distinction of being one of only three to retain its original travelling case).

It has not, so far, been smashed into tiny bits.

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In this short video, Graham Fisher of the British Glass Foundation discusses replicas made of the vase in glass in the nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

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