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Cast of the Portland Vase, ca. 1782

Cast of the Portland Vase, ca. 1782

James Tassie (cast). Near Glasgow, Scotland, 1735 - 1799 London. Giovanni Pichler (mold). Naples 1734-1791 Rome. Cast of the Portland Vase, c.1782. Plaster, 10 ½ in (height). Gift of Francis Calley Gray, 1831.


This unprepossessing vase is a rare, eighteenth-century plaster cast of the celebrated—and more colorful—Portland Vase in glass, made in Rome (or possibly Alexandria) two millennia ago. By the time Francis Calley Gray gave this cast to the Athenæum in 1831, the original vase had become an icon of antiquity on both sides of the Atlantic. The original vase, however, was smashed into pieces by a drunken man at the British Museum in 1845 (and has been repaired three times since). No direct replicas of the undamaged vase exist other than the five or six known casts by James Tassie, and the Athenæum’s is one of them. Tassie’s casts are perhaps of relatively small intrinsic beauty but of great historical significance.

Considered a technical marvel of ancient glassmaking, the original glass vase has a dark cobalt blue background fused with opaque white figures and objects cut in cameo relief (plate XX).[1] The vase was originally made in the amphora form—the bottom tapering to a point—but by the time it was re-discovered during the Renaissance the bottom of the vase had been cut off and fitted with a disc bearing a bas-relief of Paris, as reproduced in the Athenæum’s cast. The original vase had been in the Barberini collection for 150 years and celebrated as the Barberini vase when James Byres, an entrepreneurial Scottish architect living in Rome, purchased it about 1780. By Byres’s orders, the gem engraver Giovanni (or Johannes) Pichler made an exact mold of the vase, which about 1782 was sent to the eminent Scottish modeler, James Tassie, then living in London, with instructions to produce about sixty casts in plaster and to destroy the mold thereafter.[2] In 1783 Byre sold the ancient vase to Sir William Hamilton, who carried it to England, where he sold the treasure to the vase-loving Duchess of Portland. But the Duchess enjoyed her purchase for less than a year, and after her death in 1785 her collection was dispersed at auction, from which her son, the 3rd Duke of Portland, bought the vase. It was the Duke who gave the vase the title “Portland” (supplanting the Italian Barberini) and deposited it at the British Museum in 1810.

The arrival of the celebrated vase in England had generated substantial excitement among the cognoscenti, and the mystery of its production and design only added to the vase’s stature as an icon of antiquity. In 1790, after years of experimentation and the long loan of the vase from the Duke of Portland, Josiah Wedgwood produced his first successful copy in his patent jasperware.[3] Wedgwood’s copies emulated the basic color scheme and the fine carving of the original vase, but not the vitrified appearance of its material, nor were they produced by direct casting as were those by Tassie. Nevertheless, Sir Joshua Reynolds publicly praised Wedgwood’s replicas, and a specimen was presented for Queen Charlotte’s approbation.[4] Wedgwood’s “first edition” is thought to have numbered about forty-five; in the next two centuries innumerable manufacturers would turn out copies of the Portland Vase in a wide variety of sizes – and even colors.[5]

In 1831, Francis Calley Gray (1790-1856) was a Boston Athenæum Trustee who had just returned from his first trip to England.[6] A lawyer by training and long engaged in public service, Gray was an extraordinary polymath immersed in European culture, especially art, and America’s first significant collector of European prints. In Boston he was benefactor to many cultural institutions—the Athenæum and Harvard among them—and a crucial conduit in the vigorous trans-Atlantic cultural exchange of his time. (In 1953, the Athenæum received from his descendants the gift of a marble bust of Gray, attributed to the American sculptor Hiram Powers, who may have executed it in Florence in the late 1830s.

The Athenæum’s cast of the Portland Vase was unlike the original in material, although it provided an accurate, monochromatic representation of the famed vase. The vase was evidently never officially shown in the Athenæum’s annual exhibitions, but in 1840 the second exhibition of sculpture included instead, as a loan, a more colorful Wedgwood copy of the Portland Vase.[7] Deposited at the Museum of Fine Arts in 1876, the Athenæum’s cast was recognized for its early date and rarity, and listed in the Museum’s early catalogues with detailed descriptions.[8] It was a perfect specimen of the kind of didactic tools—casts, copies, and examples of superior craftsmanship—that the Museum sought to display in its early years. In the twentieth century, however, casts were deemed unimportant, and much of the Museum’s cast collection—of which over forty belonged to the Athenæum—was disposed of in the 1930s.[9] This cast of the Portland Vase miraculously escaped the fate of so many others and was re-discovered in the Museum’s basement in 1955. It was returned to the Athenæum in 1975, and today provides a glimpse into a time in the Athenæum’s history when things ancient and Italian fulfilled the accepted taste of the day.


Hina Hirayama from, Stanley Ellis Cushing and David B. Dearinger, eds., Acquired Tastes: 200 Years of Collecting for the Boston Athenæum (2006): 357-359. Copyright © The Boston Athenæum.


[1]For the history of the Portland Vase, see Roger Hinks, “The History of the Portland Vase,” International Studio 93 (May 1929): 33-36; Geoffrey Wills, “Sir William Hamilton and the Portland Vase,” Apollo 110 (September 1979): 195-201; Basil Karslake, “Early Days of the Portland Vase,” Country Life 171 (June 3, 1982): 1660-1663; Robin Reilly, Wedgwood Jasper (London: Thames and Hudson, 1994), 215-236; and Robin Brooks, The Portland Vase: The Extraordinary Odyssey of a Mysterious Roman Treasure (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2004). For the latest interpretation of the figures and objects on the Portland Vase, see Randall L. Skalsky, “Visual Trope and the Portland Vase Frieze: A New Reading and Exegesis,” ARION 2 (3rd series) (1992): 42-72. For technical analysis of the Portland Vase, see the entire issue of Journal of Glass Studies (1990).
[2]Tassie does not seem to have produced the permitted sixty casts by the time of his death in 1799. On Tassie, see James Holloway, James Tassie, 1735-1799 (Edinburgh: National Galleries of Scotland, 1986).
[3]On Josiah Wedgwood and the Portland Vase, see Reilly, 215-236.
[4]Sir Joshua issued a declaration in 1790, in which he stated that Wedgwood’s copy in jasper was “a correct and faithful imitation, both in regard to the general effect, and the most minute detail of the parts” (Reilly, 227).
[5]The exact number of Portland Vases produced by Josiah Wedgwood is not known. The number forty-five is from Reilly, 231.
[6]On Gray, see Marjorie B. Cohn, Francis Calley Gray and Art Collecting for America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986).
[7]The Wedgwood Portland Vase was exhibited by John James Dixwell, who was a member of the committee that organized the sculpture exhibitions at the Athenæum Gallery beginning in 1839.
[8]See, for example, the detailed description of the cast in Museum of Fine Arts Boston: Catalogue of Casts, Parts I, II, and III: Ancient Sculpture (Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1892), 158-159.
[9]Boston Athenæum Report for the Year 1933, 2.