The Portland Vases

The Portland Vase is an ancient glass vessel, currently in the collections of the British Museum.  It stands as the most famous result of only a few decades of glass cameo experimentation in the 1st century BC.

The Portland Vase © Trustees of the British Museum

In recent centuries, this vase has been variously broken down and rebuilt, added to and fiddled with; a vessel of shards held together by so many hands, skilled and unskilled, adding their generous anointings of epoxy and myth.  It has puzzled classicists and romanced ceramicists.  In the 18th century, the vase span into a big, beautiful baitball to Josiah Wedgwood, who had it on loan in 1786. He went mad for it. He admired the vase for its deep blue-black glass and the translucent cameo figures cast in mythological scenes. Wedgwood was determined he should be able to use contemporary ceramic techniques to emulate the delicacy of the original.

Wedgwood's Copy of the Portland Vase © Wedgwood Museum

It took him three years and countless copies produced between 1786 and 1789 but the results can be seen in every mantelpiece ornament that your dad picks up, humming to himself: ‘Oh, Wedgwood, right?’.  The Portland Vase was the beginning of Wedgwood’s big blue brand: jasperware.

The story of the original vase, though, gets a little strange, complicating the clear distinction between ‘copy’ and ‘original’ that holds apart the Portland and its imitation, as found in Wedgwood’s close study.  It’s a tale with as many twists and turns as the Wedgwood Institute itself:

In 1845, the priceless Portland Vase was accidentally smashed into over 200 pieces.

The owner commissioned a restorer, who struggled to rebuild the vase from all but 37 of the fragments.

The 37 fragments were passed on to a box maker who was asked to produce a specially-built box with 37 compartments.  Each fragment was carefully filed away in its own compartment so as to keep them safe until a time when a restorer might be able to fit the fragments back into the broken vase.

But the little box was forgotten for over a hundred years, until the British Museum bought the vase from the seventh Duke of Portland in 1948 and the fragments were finally recovered.

The vase was properly restored in 1987 and the restoration artists were able to use Wedgwood’s ‘original copy’ to restore the original to a perfect copy of itself.

So now, the two vases are effectively each a copy of the other.  In the process of reconstruction and replication, the identity of the ‘original’ is lost in the body of the ‘copy’ and vice versa.

This story played out in our heads while we walked around an original landmark of Stoke’s industrial and cultural heritage on the brink of irrecoverable loss: the Historic Wedgwood Institute in Burslem, which we were visiting on a Factory Night organised by Rednile. The keys at Wedgwood were obvious remnants of the building’s previous use, symbols of transfer and redundancy in the building’s history, and further, the local ceramic industry as it undergoes significant restructuring and restoration.

Temporary Staff Room

Keys to the Temporary Staff Room. Which was temporary - the room or the staff?

The keys jangled in their cabinets as ceramic fragments, missing the labels and, in some cases, the doors, that would help restorers and explorers to find their way to conserving and serving the contemporary ceramic industry in the Potteries and internationally.

David Booth and Sun Ae Kim invited me to work with them in researching and building this narrative with the support of Rednile and the British Ceramics Biennial. We put together a proposal for a short residency at the Original Spode Factory, which we undertook between November 8th and 13th 2011.

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