The Portland Vase and the Borghese Vase

Jasper Portland vase

Jasper Portland vase

Wedgwood probably regarded his greatest achievement as the copying in jasper of the Portland Vase, an ancient Roman glass vase now in the British Museum. It had recently been bought in Rome by Sir William Hamilton, who brought it to England and sold it to the Duchess of Portland. The upper layer of white glass on the original is cut deliberately thin in places so that it is tinted by the dark layer underneath.

Since Wedgwood's jasper was less translucent, he had to touch in the white jasper of his Portland vases lightly with grey or brown shadows. He was a man of his time in regarding the accurate imitation of a classical masterpiece more highly than artistic originality. The vases were extremely difficult to make and only about thirty were made between 1790 and Wedgwood's death. Since the Lady Lever collection has two examples, a different side of each is shown here. Later Wedgwood copies of the design are less finely made.

Named after the family who owned it, the ancient Borghese Vase was another of the tourist attractions in 18th century Rome. Wedgwood arranged for copies to be made of a number of ancient relief carvings there between 1787 and 1790. Both John Flaxman and Wedgwood's employee the Swiss sculptor Henry Webber (1754-1826) were in Rome and able to organise the work.

One of the artists employed was John de Vaere (1755-1830), a French sculptor who had studied in England. In 1788 he made the original wax model for the figures of Bacchus and his followers on Wedgwood's Borghese vase. This is one of a large group of wax models sent from Rome for Wedgwood, which were in the Darwin family, were bought by Lord Tweedmouth and are now in the Lady Lever collection. As a group they are a unique survival. The Borghese vases are among the largest pieces of jasper ever produced by Wedgwood.