Published 17th April 2013
The original ‘Portland’ vase was a tour de force of Roman cameo glass making that was first recorded circa 1600 and has since then had a colourful history. Amongst these was Cardinal Barberini the nephew of Pope Urban VIII whose family retained the vase for 150 years before it was sold to clear the gambling debts of the Princess Barberini-Colonna to a Scottish antiques dealer called James Byres in 1780. He treasured the vase so much that he had sixty plaster copies made by James Tassie which he sold along with the original.
A pair of Wedgwood pale blue jasper ware Portland vases (FS18/514)
Passing via William Hamilton it was purchased by the eccentric Dowager Duchess of Portland who was said to be ‘intoxicated only by empty vases’. On her death in 1785 her son the 3rd Duke of Portland purchased it at auction allowing Josiah Wedgwood to make porcelain copies of it provided he didn’t bid for it. Unfortunately even before Wedgwood got his hands on it, it was broken twice, and presumably this was when the beautifully carved, but obviously errant base was stuck on.
Wedgwood's copy of the errant base added to the original Portland vase before 1785 (FS18/514)
The 4th Duke of Portland left it with the British Museum for safe keeping where in 1845 whilst on view, it was comprehensively smashed by an intoxicated Irishman. It was glued together, although thirty seven pieces could not be found. The 7th Duke failed to sell the vase at auction, but subsequently sold the vase to the museum in 1945, luckily the missing pieces were found shortly afterwards.
Detail of a Wedgwood jasper ware Portland vase showing the myth of Peleus and Thetis (FS18/514)