Saturday, November 17, 2012

Wedgwood: The Portland Vase

Portland Vase,
British Museum
Josiah Wedgwood seems to have fallen in love with the Portland Vase as deeply as everybody else.  The infatuation has less to do with the mythological scenes on the vase. (Scholars remain divided over the interpretation: Is it the courtship of Peleus and Thetis, or, as E. Simon argues and I believe, the narrative of Attia's conception by Apollo, as told in the ancient birth myth of Octavian?)

Sir William Hamilton bought the Portland Vase, perhaps most famous surviving Roman artwork, for £1,000 in 1783 and sold it the next year to the Dowager Duchess of Portland. It is said that Wedgwood cut a deal with the 3rd Duke of Portland: he would not drive up the bidding price, if the Duke would allow him to take it on loan for copying. By 1786, the work was underway. The first edition Portland vase appeared in 1790.

Since its first offering, the Wedgwood firm has produced at least one dozen distinct runs of the Portland vase in various sizes and colors. Some of the finest examples are museum pieces in their own right.
Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History: Metropolitan Museum of Art
Wedgwood was already manufacturing his famous Jasperware since 1775. Once perfected Wedgwood's refined stoneware became the most commercially "successful and enduring range of ornamental ware and gift ware ever manufactured." (Reilly, s.v. "jasper").

The  similarities between the Portland Vase and Wedgwood's characteristic relief work are actually coincidental. Wedgwood and his partners were copying the appearance of ancient cameos several years before. The iconic Wedgwood style of white reliefs on a normally blue ground was being developed broadly by the firm in the 1770's. Cameos, medallions, and tablets in white-on-blue-were already popular before the newly acquired Portland Vase came into Josiah's plans. Artistic partner John Flaxman gets credit for introducing the idea. "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 endeavoring to bring your bisque & jasper." (J. Flaxman, Feb 1785, cited in Reilly s.v. "Portland vase".)

"Wedgwood's greatest achievement in jasper was undoubtedly the Portland vase, produced after four years of trials, in 1790, but he personally considered the Homeric vase [the Apotheosis of Homer] to be his finest." (Reilly, s.v. "jasper")

"It is one of the great virtues of jasper, but also one of the perennial problems of marketing it, that it is associated so closely with neo-classical ornament." (Reilly, s.v. "jasper")

Source: Robin Reilly, Wedgwood: the new illustrated dictionary (Suffolk, 1995), s.v. "Portland Vase".

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