Portland Vase Copy, Josiah Wedgwood, 1789
A Roman artist carved the Portland Vase from cameo glass around the 1st century AD. Unearthed in the late 16th or early 17th century, it came into the collection of Margaret Bentinck, 2nd Duchess of Portland, in 1783. Since then, it has borne the name of her family’s seat; they donated it permanently to the British Museum, where it has been a cornerstone of its antiquities collection since 1810.
Sculptor John Flaxman suggested that potter Josiah Wedgwood study the Portland Vase and make copies. Instead of cameo glass, Wedgwood used jasperware, a material he developed from barium sulfate. It took him four years to complete the first copy to his satisfaction, which he then put into production.
Several detailed figures form a frieze around the vase. Although many scholars identify one as Cupid, god of love, the other figures are more ambiguous. Some scholars believe that figures are mythological, suggesting that the couple holding hands are the hero Peleus and his sea-nymph wife, Thetis. Others believe these scenes contain both historic and mythological figures, such as the Roman emperor Augustus, his mother, the sun god Apollo (as a snake), and the sea god Neptune. On the opposite side, some scholars identify the handsome Trojan mortal Paris, his mother Hecuba, and Venus, the goddess of beauty.
The Birmingham Museum of Art’s Wedgwood collection includes two first-edition copies of the Portland Vase. When removing them from the kiln, Wedgwood hand-numbered each copy on the inside; the Museum’s black copy is number 12. Sir Joshua Reynolds, painter, wrote about number 12, stating that it was so accurate to the original Portland Vase that Wedgwood thought it his best copy. A year later, he made a few copies in slate blue; the Museum houses one of only five copies known in this color.
—Katherine Ladd, education – visitor engagement intern spring 2013
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Josiah Wedgwood created a number of copies of the Portland Vase. Museums and private collectors around the world collect these copies, as well as other types of multiple artworks like photographs, prints, and cast-metal sculptures. Do you think that copies of the Portland Vase are as important as the Roman original? Why or why not? How does the number of artworks in an edition affect their “authenticity” or value?
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