Mr. Webster is far too terse sometimes.

The Portland Vase is/was a magnificent1 glass vase about nine inches tall, in a hypnotic shade of cobalt blue, with scenes of  cavorting gods and goddesses appearing in relief, in white glass around the outside.  The vase is one of the few examples of cameo glass  to survive from Roman times. Although it was probably made sometime during the reign of Augustus Caesar, the vase is far better known for its recent history.

Precisely how the vase survived the Middle Ages is lost to us. One story describes it as being stolen from the tomb of Roman Emperor Alexander Deverus sometime around 1580.  (one source describes it as a 'cinerary urn', which means it may have held the Emperor's ashes). The vase first appears in the collection of Cardinal Francesco Maria Borbone del Monte.  When the cardinal died in 1626, his heirs sold it to Cardinal Antonio Barberini.  Around 1770, however, Scottish architect and antique hunter James Byres, bought it from the Barberini heirs, and sold it to Sir William Hamilton.   Some time in 1783 Margaret Bentinck, 2nd Duchess of Portland saw the vase and had to have it. She purchased the vase from Hamilton in 1784.

The vase was to be the Duchess's greatest treasure, the one she would only allow her most favoured guests to see.  Unfortunately for her, the event that brought the vase to everyone's attention was the Duchess's death in 1785.  The vase created quite a sensation when it appeared in the auction of the Duchess's effects.  Although her son, now Duke of Portland, bought it, he immediately lent it to Josiah Wedgwood.  Several drawings of the outside of the vase were made, and Wedgwood set about trying to reproduce it.

In 1791, Wedgwood succeeded in producing jasperware versions of the vase -- although crude compared to the original, it was a triumph of the day's pottery technology.  Wedgwood built up legends about the vase in order to boost sales, probably one reason the vase's origins have been muddied.

The original vase wound up back with the Duke of Portland until 1810, when a clumsy friend broke the base off. The Duke decided that the vase would be safer in the British Museum and lent it to them.

All was well until 1845, when a certain William Mulcahy blundered into the museum after having too much to drink.  In a fit, he smashed the vase's display case and broke this object which had survived more than eighteen centuries into hundreds of pieces.  Mulcahy was later charged for breaking the case.

Fortunately, the drawings from 1790 still existed. An employee of the Museum, John Doubleday, was immediately set to putting the vase back together as best he could.  It was a very good job for the time; unfortunately, Doubleday left out several pieces, and used a glue that changed color and expanded over the years.

Glassmaker Benjamin Richardson was so taken by the vase that he set his employees to the rediscovery of ancient Roman techniques in cameo glass making, offering a £1000 reward to the first one who could. This effort bore fruit in the late 1870's, and a craze in Victorian, and later art noveau cameo glass began.

In 1929 came the event the British Museum dreaded (second) most: the Duke's heirs decided to sell the vase at auction in order to raise money.   By 1945 the Museum had purchased the vase.  A second restoration was undertaken in 1949, this cleaned up the glue problem but there were still many pieces leftover.

Finally, in 1986, Nigel Williams performed a third restoration for the British Museum.  This time, computer imagery was employed to help line up the pieces, and an epoxy was used that could be dissolved later, should another  restoration be needed.  What's more, several of the leftover pieces found their rightful places.

1 Much better-looking than the Bishop's Bird-stump. which has far too much Javascript and too many popup windows.

Port"land vase` (?).

A celebrated cinerary urn or vase found in the tomb of the Emperor Alexander Severus. It is owned by the Duke of Portland, and kept in the British Museum.


© Webster 1913.

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