RECORD: Keynes, Milo. 1998. The Portland Vase: Sir William Hamilton, Josiah Wedgwood and the Darwins. Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London 52, No. 2 (July): 237-259.
REVISION HISTORY: OCRed by John van Wyhe 6.2008. RN1
NOTE: The OCR text of this document has not been corrected. It is provided for the time being 'as is' to help facilitate electronic searching. You can help us correct these texts, email Dr John van Wyhe to volunteer email@example.com
Reproduced with the permission of Milo Keynes.
Notes Rec. R. Soc. Lond. 52 (2), 237-259 (1998) © 1998 The Royal Society
THE PORTLAND VASE: SIR WILLIAM HAMILTON, JOSIAH WEDGWOOD AND THE DARWINS
3 Brunswick Walk Cambridge CB5 8DH, UK
The Portland Vase in the British Museum is named after the Dukes of Portland who owned it from 1786 to 1945, and is the finest piece of Roman cameo-glass in existence. From a report of 16971 it is probable, but not certain, that it was discovered in 1582 near a marble sarcophagus found on excavation of a burial chamber in a mound, known as the Monte del Grano, beside the Via Tuscolana, three miles south-east of the Porta San Giovanni of ancient Rome.
The Vase was reported seen in the Palazzo Madama belonging to Cardinal Francesco del Monte (1549-1626) in 1600-01, and there is a drawing of it done before 1590, with others that date from the second quarter of the 17th century, from the collection of Cassiano dal Pozzo (1588-1657) in the Royal Library, Windsor, and the British Museum. In 1626 it went for 500 scudi to the nephew of Pope Urban VIII, Cardinal Francesco Barberini (1597-1679). It was in his newly built Palazzo in 1642, and had to be seen by every young man on the grand tour.2
In 1780, the Vase was sold to pay the gambling debts of Donna Cordelia Barberini-Colonna, Princess of Palestrina. The buyer was a Scotsman resident in Rome, James Byres (1733-1817), architect, antiquarian and occasional art dealer, who sold it late in 1782 for £1000 to Sir William Hamilton, F.R.S. (1730-1803). A grandson of the third Duke of Hamilton and brought up as the foster brother of George IE, Hamilton was plenipotentiary at the Court of the Two Sicilies at Naples from 1764 to 1800 (figure 1). When he made his hugely costly purchase of the Vase 'concluded in a moment', he admitted that 'God knows it was not very convenient for me'.3 Hamilton's first wife, Catherine, died in 1780, and in 1786 Emma Hart (1765-1815) arrived to join him in Naples; he married her in 1791. She first saw Nelson in 1793, but was not to meet him until five years later, after the Battle of the Nile, in 1798.
Hamilton's Greek vases
Besides reporting to the Royal Society on the volcanoes Mounts Vesuvius, Etna and Stromboli in the Lipari islands,4 Hamilton was a scholarly, passionate and pioneering collector of Greek vases and other classical antiquities,5 but bought more than he could afford. He began to collect as soon as he reached Naples and, aiming to influence taste besides increasing its market worth, worked hard to have his collection described and
Figure 1. Wedgwood bas-relief portrait of Sir William Hamilton. A remodelling of that of 1772 by Joachim Smith, done either by Smith or William Hackwood. (Wedgwood Museum)
illustrated in four truly sumptuous folio volumes, with a catalogue compiled by the art historian d'Hancarville (nom deplume of Pierre Francois Hugues). These came out in 1766-67, and cost him £6000.36
Lord Cathcart (1721-1776), Hamilton's brother-in-law and Russian Ambassador, lent some of the proofs of the plates to his friend Josiah Wedgwood, F.R.S. (1730-1795) at the time that Wedgwood was building his new factory at 'Etruria' in Burslem, Stoke-on-Trent.7 The name Etruria, most likely suggested by Dr Erasmus Darwin,8 was given to the Ridge House Estate under the misapprehension that some of the finest pottery found in tombs in Etruria, in central Italy, was of Etruscan origin. The opening of the factory in June 1769 was celebrated by Wedgwood himself throwing six 'First Day's Vases', each decorated with three figures taken from engravings in Hamilton's book and with the words Artes Etruriae Renascuntur on them.9
The site of the new factory, bought in December 1767, had been determined by the cutting of the Trent and Mersey, or 'Grand Trunk', Canal, begun in 1766 and completed in 1777, which came about largely from the tireless exertions of Wedgwood, who cut the first sod of the Canal when work on it started; it was the success of making the canal that greatly contributed to Wedgwood's subsequent wealth.10
The well-placed, well-designed factory, equipped with the most modern machinery and using the newest techniques, was at first used as a 'Vase work', or factory for decorative ornamental vases,10 as outlined by Wedgwood in two letters, dated 8
November and 17 December 1766, to Thomas Bentley (1731-1780), who became his partner in 1768.11 The partners waited until 1772 before closing Wedgwood's two other factories and transferring their production of 'Useful Works' (table wares) to Etruria, where Wedgwood was already creating a new fashion for vases and other ceramic ornaments.12 A principal source for these decorative wares continued to be the engravings illustrating the collection of William Hamilton.
In 1771 Hamilton took his first leave from Naples and brought home his well-advertised collection. When negotiations were in progress for its purchase by the nation, it consisted of more than 2000 vases, terracottas, ivories, bronzes and ancient glass. It was bought in 1772 by the Trustees of the British Museum, founded in 1753, with a Parliamentary grant of 8000 guineas, and was to form the basis there of the department of Greek and Roman antiquities.13
William Hamilton took further leave of absence from Naples between August 1783 and September 1784, when he first met Emma Hart, the mistress of his nephew Charles Greville, in London. This time he brought with him the Barberini Vase, which he soon hoped to sell to the eccentric Dowager Duchess of Portland (1715-1785), described by Horace Walpole (1717-1797) as being 'a simple woman, but perfectly sober, and intoxicated only by empty vases', and earlier called by Matthew Prior, F.R.S. (1664-1721) 'my noble, lovely, little Peggy'. The Duchess had formed a renowned private museum in Privy Gardens, Whitehall, containing an odd collection of over 4000 natural and artificial curiosities including Etruscan vases. After secret and delicate negotiation, she bought the Vase with three other antiquities for 1800 guineas.3 Before Hamilton parted with it, he got the artist G.B. Cipriani (1727-1785) to draw it for Francesco Bartolozzi (1727-1815) to make engravings that were published in April 1786.14
John Flaxman, the sculptor (1755-1826), who first worked for Wedgwood in 1775 in producing a portrait bas-relief of Sir Joseph Banks, F.R.S. (1743-1820) (figure 2), was the first to draw Wedgwood's attention to the Vase in a letter from London, dated 5 February 1784:
I wish you may soon come to town to see Wm Hamilton's Vase, it is the finest production of Art that has been brought to England and seems to be the very apex of perfection to which you are endeavouring to bring your bisque & jasper.15
The Duchess finally received the Vase in June 1784, but only possessed it for a year, as she died in July 1785. Her collection was then put up for auction in 38 sessions between 24 April and 7 June 1786. The frontispiece to the sale catalogue, an engraving by Charles Grignion (1716-1810) after E.F. Burney (1760-1848), showed both sides of the Vase and its disc-base, which was Lot 4155 on the final day of the sale; a newspaper report in the General Advertiser on 26 April described its damaged condition, finding that the 'Vase has been broken into three pieces, and its original bottom was most certainly destroyed' .16 Most have taken the original shape of the Vase to be that of an amphora with a lid and pointed base, and have agreed that it now lacks the beauty of such an amphora.
At the sale the Vase produced 980 guineas, bought by an agent for the son of the
Figure 2. Wedgwood bas-relief portrait of Sir Joseph Banks, 1775. Medallion modelled by John
Flaxman. (Wedgwood Museum)
deceased Duchess, the third Duke of Portland (1738-1809), prime minister in 1783 and from 1807 to 1809, possibly on the advice of Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792). Three days later Josiah Wedgwood took it on loan for a year so that he could model it for reproduction in his jasper ware: it has incorrectly been inferred that the loan was a reward for not bidding against the Duke's agent at the auction.2
On 16 June 1787 Wedgwood wrote to Hamilton in Naples17 that Flaxman was preparing to go to Italy for two years. He intended to set up a modelling studio in Rome to supply Wedgwood with casts and copies of antique bas-reliefs for reproduction in jasper ware, which would be new to the English market and not available to other manufacturers. Flaxman had promised, Wedgwood wrote, 'to employ for me all the time he can spare in Rome', and was joined there by two of his modellers, Henry Webber (1754-1826) and John de Vaere (1755-1830), from Etruria, as well as, at various times, by seven Italian modellers.18 Webber was in Rome from July 1787 to November 1789 to make 'Models, Drawings and other Improvements in the Arts of Modelling and Designing'.
After the sale of the first collection, Hamilton soon began to form a second one, which by 1790 began to surpass the first in numbering over 1000 vases, half of them figured; by this time he had realized that the vases commonly called Etruscan had a Greek origin. Hoping to arouse interest in the collection and further influence the artists of the English Neoclassical school, which included Henry Fuseli (1741-1825) besides
Flaxman, he again prepared four illustrated volumes, that were published 1791-95.19 By 1796 he needed to attempt another sale, wishing to sell the new collection as a whole and known by his name, rather than to see it broken up; but it took time.
In 1798, and after their defeat at the Battle of the Nile by Nelson, the French began to advance across land on Naples, so that the Hamiltons had to move with the Court to Palermo in Sicily. Some cases filled with vases were sent to England, but were lost when the ship Colossus, whose hold they were in, foundered off the Scilly Isles. But the main collection survived intact, eventually to arrive in London where Hamilton, by now in retirement, tried to sell it for £5000.20 A sale by the auctioneer James Christie (1730-1803) was arranged, when an offer of £4000 made by a private purchaser, Thomas Hope (1769-1831), author, antiquarian and patron of the arts, was accepted on 3 April 1801.
Hamilton had been told that the collection would be 'kept entire' on display in Hope's house. This house in Duchess Street, off Portland Place, had been built by Robert Adam, F.R.S. (1728-1792) for General Robert Clerk (d. 1797), Hamilton's other brother-in-law, and was bought by Hope in 1799. But part of the collection was sold in 1805 and more in 1849. Thomas Hope, whose father, John Hope (1737-1784), was a wealthy Amsterdam banker of Scottish descent, had only moved to live in London in 1795 when Holland was overrun by Napoleon's armies. By then he had already made many purchases of Wedgwood's jasper ware.20,21
The Portland Vase (figures 3,4 and 5)
The Portland Vase, of height 248 mm and diameter 177 mm, formed of cobalt-blue glass that looks black unless seen by transmitted light, has a decoration carved by gem engravers out of a second layer of opaque milky-white glass fused on the blue. It is a masterpiece of cameo-cutting thought to have been made early in the reign (27 bc-ad 14) of the first Roman emperor, Augustus, probably in Rome by craftsmen who may have trained in Alexandria, Egypt, where the cameo-glass technique seems to have originated.22,23 This is thought to have involved using a blowpipe.
The Vase is decorated with a frieze of figures divided into two scenes, one with four figures, and the other with three, with a Pan's mask below each of the two handles. The meaning of the two scenes has been hotly debated, but mostly they have been identified with the myth of Peleus, once married to Antigone, and the Nereid goddess Thetis, the parents of Achilles.22 The foot of the Vase is broken off, and has a cameo-glass disc, cast in two layers and cut down from a larger composition in a colour that does not match the rest of the Vase, attached to it sometime before the end of the 16th century. The style of carving of the disc suggests it dates from the first quarter of the first century AD, and shows the upper part of a figure of a young man in profile, with his right hand raised with his forefinger to his lips, wearing a Phrygian cap. This figure is usually identified as Paris, son of King Priam of Troy, in the act of choosing the most beautiful of the three goddesses, Hera, Athena and Aphrodite, and awarding the golden apple to Aphrodite at the wedding of Peleus and Thetis (figure 5).2223 The Vase
Figure 3. The Portland Vase. Side 1: The goddess Thetis reclining between Hermes and Aphrodite. Cameo-glass after reconstruction in 1989. Late first century bc, perhaps from Rome. Height 248 mm. (British Museum)
Figure 4. The Portland Vase. Side 2: The hero Peleus holding the arm of Doris or Tethys with Eros above and Nereno or Oceanus right. (British Museum)
Figure 5. The base of the Portland Vase, with relief figure generally identified as Paris. Engraving by William Blake illustrating Erasmus Darwin's The Botanic Garden, Part 1 The
Economy of Vegetation', 1791.
was thought to have been a funerary urn for the ashes of a Roman emperor, but, in view of the current favoured interpretation of the scenes, now seems to have been made for a wedding.24 Painter and Whitehouse,24 however, believe that it was made to celebrate Rome's birth from the ashes of Troy and to honour the man, Augustus, who had inaugurated Rome's golden age.
After Wedgwood returned the Vase to the Duke of Portland it was damaged in his house by the raunchy Duchess of Gordon (Jenny of Monreith, 1749[?]—1812), who dislodged the base-disc from it. Soon after the Duke's death it was placed on loan in the British Museum, in 1810, by his son, the fourth Duke of Portland, F.R.S. (1768-1854), to protect it from the risk of further domestic damage. But 35 years later, on 7 February 1845, a young Irishman entered the anteroom in the Hamilton Gallery, where the Vase was kept in a glass case, and smashed both to pieces with what was called 'a curiosity in sculpture'. The culprit, who admitted breaking the Vase after he 'had been indulging in intemperance for a week before', was fined £3, which was paid for by the Duke because he did not wish to appear to be persecuting a man who might be mad.25
The Vase, broken into 189 fragments, looked irreparable, but was put together and replaced on exhibition after seven months, becoming one of the best-known pieces in the British Museum. Its popularity waned, however, from 1909, after the former Director of the British School in Rome claimed to have disproved the story of its discovery. When the sixth Duke withdrew it from the museum and put it up for auction in 1929, it failed to reach the reserve estimate, so was replaced there in 1932.
In 1945, it was sold to the Trustees of the British Museum [BM GR 1945.9-27] for £5000. Two years later, after the discovery of 37 chips of glass that had not been used in its repair of 1845, it was taken to pieces again to remove the old glue, that had become discoloured and obtrusive, and rebuilt using modern adhesive. By the mid-1980s this had deteriorated, so that it became necessary to reconstruct it again using coloured resin to replace missing areas, work undertaken between summer 1988 and early 1989.25
Wedgwood's copying of the Vase (figures 6 and 7)
To copy the classical cameo-glass Portland Vase in black jasper was to be Josiah Wedgwood's crowning technical achievement (figure 8). It was considerably more difficult to do than he had expected, and three years passed before the first perfect copy was made. Wedgwood knew his best throwers could fashion the shape of the Vase, and that his best modellers, Henry Webber assisted by William Hackwood (c. 1757-1839) and William Wood (d. 1808), had the skill to make accurate copies of the relief figures. But within two weeks of collecting it, he wrote a long letter, on 24 June 1786, to Hamilton, evidently without having seen the article in the General Advertiser.
His Grace the Duke of Portland ... has generously lent it [the Vase] to me to copy ... I stand in much need of your advice & directions in several particulars ... I stand more in need of them than ever, being engaged in an undertaking which appears more & more formidable upon every review of the charming original... .1 should scarcely muster sufficient resolution to proceed if I had not, too precipitately perhaps, pledged myself to many friends to attempt it. .. .1 suppose it is admitted that the form of this vase is not so elegant as it might be if the artist had not been possessed of some very good reason for contenting himself with the present form ... the body being made in one colour, & the surface covered over to a due thickness with another, was not capable of taking a form with those delicate parts on which its beauty as a simple vase would in great measure depend. .. .1 suppose you would still advise me to copy the form of the vase as well as the figures.26
Hamilton answered, approving Wedgwood's intention to restore 'surfaces partially decayed by time' and to make 'the most simple copies' of the Vase without modifying its shape, despite his dissatisfaction with the ungraceful form of the Vase.27
Wedgwood had begun to develop his invention of coloured jasper in 1774, and by 1776 could successfully fire this new composition. He worked on his pyrometer from 1778 after correspondence with Sir Joseph Banks, newly P.R.S.,28 and a paper entitled 'An attempt to make a thermometer measuring the higher degrees of heat from a red heat up to the strongest that vessels made of clay can support' was read to the Royal Society on 9 May 1782,29 with his election as Fellow on 16 January 1783. He presented further papers to the Royal Society in 1783, 1784 and 1786.28 In 1788 the first governor of New South Wales, Captain Arthur Phillip (1738-1794), sent a sample of white clay from Sydney Cove to Banks, who passed it on to Wedgwood to make tests, that were to be his last set of experiments. The clay was found to contract excessively in firing, but its strength made it suitable for cameos and medallions, 'where extreme fine impressions' were necessary.30
Figure 6. Wedgwood copy of the Portland Vase: unnumbered, bought by Thomas Hope in June 1793. Side 1: jasper, white relief on black. Height 255 mm. (Wedgwood Museum)
Figure 7. Wedgwood copy of the Portland Vase, as in figure 6. Side 2. (Wedgwood Museum)
Figure 8. Wedgwood bas-relief portrait of Josiah Wedgwood 1,1782. Medallion modelled by William Hackwood. (Wedgwood Museum)
Besides Wedgwood's dissatisfaction with the shape of the Vase, there was the difficulty of its colour. He had already developed a black jasper, but it had a brown-black tinge quite different from the blue-black of the glass of the Vase, so he had to create a new jasper colour by using cobalt blue, that would stand the necessary heat of the oven without blistering, or distortion and collapse. He doubted that the white bas-relief could be applied thinly enough for the ground colour to show through and give the transparency and 'perspective' of the original, but discovered he could remedy this by application of a thin black wash over the white to give the effect of light and shade achieved by the original glass cameo-cutter. Wax models were made of the decoration from which working moulds could be taken, but it proved a difficult task and required a long series of trials, the evidence for which survives in the Wedgwood Museum. He then had to learn how to apply the figures to the jasper.31
After a year, he could allow Flaxman and Henry Webber to go to Rome, in June 1787, but one main problem persisted, that of the firing. 'I must', he wrote to Hamilton, 'depend upon an agent, whose effects are neither at my command, nor to be perceived at the time they are produced, viz. the action of fire on my compositions.'32 With this he was greatly helped by perfecting his pyrometer. But it took three years, becoming a matter of pride and his reputation, and regardless of the cost in time, materials and labour, before achieving the first perfect copy, which he gave to Erasmus Darwin, in October 1789.33
He had first met Erasmus Darwin, M.D., F.R.S. (1731-1802), who soon became a close friend and his 'Favourite Aesculapius', in 1764 or 1765.34 In 1741, the young
Josiah, at the age of 11, had suffered a severe attack of confluent smallpox. This left him with a stiff and painful right knee, so that, after starting his five-year apprenticeship at 14, he had to abandon the thrower's bench two years later, and work at other branches of his trade.35 For 22 years he suffered, and, after an episode when he had 'over-walked and over-worked his leg' at the time of buying the Ridge House Estate and working on the cutting of the canal, the pain became so intense, that, after consultation with Erasmus Darwin, his leg was amputated by a local surgeon, James Bent, on 28 May 1768. Healing was by first intention and the result excellent, so that a wooden leg could be fitted by 14 July.36 Darwin was also consulted by Wedgwood for his attacks of depression, and frequently by his wife, Sarah (1734-1815), for her bad rheumatism, besides attending several of her confinements. In addition to inoculating the family against smallpox and being consulted about them, Darwin helped Wedgwood in other ways, such as the planning and promotion of the canal, as well as by his scientific interests and mechanical inventions.
When Wedgwood wrote to Erasmus Darwin, on 28 June 1789,37 about the Portland Vase, he outlined how he had attempted to copy the fine antique forms, 'but not with absolute servility', and had 'endeavoured to preserve the stile & spl [spirit]'. He sent Darwin the first perfect copy in October, under strict injunctions not to show it except to his family, though, as Erasmus 'could be relied upon to ignore all instructions but his own',38 he would, most likely, start advertising the Vase, if he liked it. Erasmus replied:
I have disobeyed you and shewn your vase to two or three, but they were philosophers, not cogniscenti. How can I possess a jewel, and not communicate the pleasure to a few Derby Philosophes?39
The advertisement of a marvellous accomplishment had begun.
Once Wedgwood knew he could reproduce the original Portland Vase to his satisfaction, he began its marketing. A copy was put on display in his Greek Street, Soho, showroom in April and May 1790 after printing 1900 engraved admission cards. Queen Charlotte, after whom, in 1766, Wedgwood had renamed his creamware 'Queen's ware', was given a private view of the vase on 1 May, and later that day another private exhibition was held at the house of Sir Joseph Banks in front of a distinguished gathering, including Sir Joshua Reynolds, P.R.A., and Horace Walpole. Later, on 15 June, Reynolds signed a certificate of approval of the vase: 'I can venture to declare it a correct and faithful imitation both in regard to general effort, and the most minute detail of the parts' .40
In June, Josiah Wedgwood II (1769-1843), uncle of Charles Robert Darwin, F.R.S. (1809-1882), and father of Charles's wife, Emma (1808-1896), set out on a promotional tour in Europe taking with him Josiah I's own copy of the Vase. He went first to Rotterdam and then to The Hague, Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Berlin and Hanover looking for subscribers.
The first edition consists of those copies potted between October 1789 and January 1795, and became more of a prestige production than a profit-making venture. In fact, the jasper Portland Vase was a commercial failure but a technical triumph ranked
among the greatest of the English potter's craft. Its fame spread quickly and was a wonderful advertisement for the name of Wedgwood and the reputation of the Etruria factory. The record of kiln firings at the factory, or 'Oven Book',41 which may be incomplete, documents 45 copies, of which 10 were broken and not all of the rest perfect, so that it appears unlikely that more than 31 vases were of sufficient quality to be sold to subscribers.42
By May 1789 Wedgwood had received subscriptions for 20 vases, though not all the subscribers, such as the Prince of Wales, were to take them up, and Josiah II, writing 45 years later, believed his father never sold as many as ten copies.42 At first a price of 50 guineas was to be charged for a copy, but this was soon lowered. On 13 June 1793 Thomas Hope took delivery in Amsterdam of one of the first successful copies for 30 guineas, with an additional 2 guineas for its case, after being shown the copy that Josiah II had taken there in 1790, which Josiah I had insisted should be brought back to Etruria.43 Both copies, which are unnumbered, are now in the Wedgwood Museum at Barlaston, Stoke-on-Trent. In 1984, Aileen Dawson, with Ann Eatwell, published a list of early copies of the the Portland Vase that they could trace at that time.44
The Darwins and the Portland Vase
Erasmus Darwin sent his first paper to the Royal Society at the age of 25 in 1757, and became a Fellow four years later. He had papers published in the Philosophical Transactions in 1757,1760,1774,1778,1785 and 1788. In 1789 he published The Loves of the Plants', about the sex life of plants. Written between 1779 and 1784 in 968 decasyllabic rhyming couplets, it was Part II of his first long poem, 'The Botanic Garden' ,45 Darwin's name did not appear on the title page because he feared that, if it did, 'it would be injurious to me in my medical practise, as it has been to all other physicians who have published poetry'.46
When Josiah Wedgwood wrote to Erasmus Darwin in July 1789, before he had sent him the first perfect copy of the Vase in October, he urged him to see 'the cameo of all cameos. ...the late Barberini, now Portland vase', continuing:
The various explications of the bas reliefs upon this famous work of antiquity which I have collected, & think you have a copy of,48 might furnish even a minor poet with subjects for a few lines; what effect must it have then on a fancy & genius of the first order.47
It was at a time when Darwin (figure 9) was in the course of writing Part I, 'The Economy of Vegetation', of 'The Botanic Garden' ,45 which was published later than Part II, with 1791 on the title page, and with a frontispiece by Fuseli. Written in 1224 couplets, it selectively surveyed natural philosophy in four cantos on Fire (I), Earth (II), Water (III) and Air (IV). And Darwin took Wedgwood's hint and wrote a section of Canto II on ceramics, in which he regarded the Vase as a 'mystic urn', the decoration in a symbolic rather than mythological way. In a footnote, he greatly praised Wedgwood, describing his industry and inventiveness:
Figure 9. Wedgwood bas-relief portrait of Erasmus Darwin, 1779. Modelled after portrait in oils
by Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-1797), painted in 1770. Medallion attributed to William
Hackwood. (Wedgwood Museum)
Etruria! next beneath thy magic hands Glides the quick wheel, the plaistic clay expands, Nerved with fine touch, thy fingers (as it turns) Mark the nice bounds of vases, ewers, and urns; Round each fair form in lines immortal trace Uncopied Beauty, and ideal Grace.
And pleased on Wedgwood ray your partial smile,
A new Etruria decks Britannia's isle,
Charm'd by your touch, the flint liquescent pours
Through finer sieves, and falls in whiter showers;
Charm'd by your touch, the kneaded clay refines,
The biscuit hardens, the enamel shines;
Each nicer mould a softer feature drinks,
The bold Cameo speaks, the soft Intaglio thinks.
Whether, O Friend of Art! the gem you mould
Rich with new taste, with antient virtue bold;
Form the poor fetter'd Slave on bended knee
From Britain's sons imploring to be free;
Or with fair Hope the brightening scenes improve,
And cheer the dreary wastes at Sydney-cove;
Or bid Mortality rejoice and mourn
O'er the fine forms on Portland's mystic urn.
Here by fall'n columns and disjoin'd arcades,
On mouldering stones, beneath deciduous shades,
Sits Humankind in hieroglyphic state,
Serious, and pondering on their changeful state;
While with inverted torch, and swimming eyes,
Sinks the fair shade of Mortal Life, and dies.
There the pale Ghost through Death's wide portal bends
His timid feet, the dusky steep descends;
With smiles assuasive Love Divine invites,
Guides on broad wing, invites torch uplifted lights.
(The Economy of Vegetation', Canto II, lines 291-330)45
With the poem, there were 120 pages of Additional Notes; Note XXII (pp. 53-59) was on the Portland Vase, and was illustrated by four engravings: (1) the Portland Vase (figure 10); (2) and (3) the two compartments with the figures; and (4) the handles and bottom of the Vase (figure 5). From a letter written to him by Wedgwood on 17 November 1789,49 Darwin had thought of using the Bartolozzi prints, but was worried that their use might infringe Sir William Hamilton's copyright.
Figure 10. Engraving of the Portland Vase by William Blake illustrating Erasmus Darwin's The Botanic Garden, Part 1 'The Economy of Vegetation', 1791.
On 9 July 1791, Darwin wrote to Wedgwood that the engraver suggested by Joseph Johnson (1738-1809), his publisher, wished to see the Bartolozzi prints, and that 'Johnson said He is capable of doing anything well'.50 Johnson wrote to Darwin on 23 July that:
It is not the expense of purchasing Bartolozzi's plates that is any object; they cannot be copied without Hamilton's consent, being protected by act of pari1.
Blake is certainly capable of making an exact copy of the vase, I believe more so than Mr. B[artolozzi], if the vase be lent him for that purpose.. .51
It was William Blake (1757-1827), thus recommended by Johnson, who engraved the four plates for The Botanic Garden', but it is not known whether he worked from the Portland Vase itself, not yet on loan to the British Museum, had access to a Wedgwood copy, or adapted Cipriani's drawings and Bartolozzi's engravings. His work was finished by 1 December 1791 —The Economy of Vegetation', though dated 1791, probably was not published until June 1792.52 Later, Blake was to provide engravings of Wedgwood ware for Josiah II in 1815 and 1816.53
Wedgwood was greatly pleased by the advertisement of his work in Darwin's poem, which ran into seven editions by 1824. He described Darwin as 'a powerful magician, who can work wonders, who can liquefy the granite, and still harder flint, into the softest poetic numbers'.54
The inheritance by descent (see Appendix 1) of Erasmus Darwin's unnumbered copy of the Vase, given to him by Josiah I in 1789, is complicated. It was not one of the two copies that belonged to Charles, Erasmus's grandson by his first marriage, in 1757, to Mary Howard (1740-1770), and Charles's wife, Emma.55 When Erasmus died in 1802, 'the first perfect copy', descended over three generations in his third family by his marriage, in 1781, to the widow, Elizabeth Pole (1747-1832), before passing to his first family and then to the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge.
After belonging to the second daughter of his third family, Emma (1784-1818), Erasmus's copy of the Vase, made in 1789, went to her brother, Sir Francis Sacheverel Darwin, M.D. (1786-1859), traveller and physician in Lichfield. On the death of his widow in 1866, it passed to their son, Reginald Darwin (1818-1892),56 who left it to his son, Admiral Sacheverel Darwin (1844-1900). By him it was bequeathed, still with its original red morocco case, to his half-second cousin, Charles Darwin's second son, Sir George Howard Darwin, F.R.S. (1845-1912).57 From him it went to his son, Sir Charles Galton Darwin, F.R.S. (1887-1962), whose son, George, loaned it in 1963 to the Fitzwilliam Museum, to which it has belonged since 1984.
Robert Waring Darwin, M.D., F.R.S. 1788 (1766-1848), physician and financier, son of Erasmus and Mary Darwin, married Susannah (1765-1817), eldest child of Josiah Wedgwood I, in 1796. But it was before this, in 1793, that he insisted on buying an unnumbered copy from Josiah I, his future father-in-law, as shown in a letter to Josiah II that year:
I am infinitely obliged for your father's kind intention respecting the Portland Vase, but should think myself sufficiently gratified in being allowed to have it on the terms mentioned in my
Figure 11. Wedgwood bas-relief portrait of Charles Darwin modelled after bust sculpted by Thomas Woolner (1825-1892) in 1868-69. (Wedgwood Museum)
His son, Charles Darwin (figure 11), inherited that vase in 1848, four years after his wife Emma had already acquired a copy, numbered 12 on its lip, from the estate of her father, Josiah II, who had died in 1843.59
According to his third son, Sir Francis (Frank) Darwin, F.R.S. (1848-1925), his biographer and collaborator, Charles had little love for family heirlooms:
It is certainly curious that so affectionate & sympathetic a man should have had so little love of heirlooms as to give away a little wedgwood vase given him by his father, tho' it is in good hands with Hooker [Sir Joseph Hooker, M.D., F.R.S. (1817-1911)]—The want of love for such things was shown by his taking no steps to buy up any of the old Shrewsbury things when all Dr R.W.D's goods—plate, china etc were sold off.60
In a letter to Hooker, dated 3 January 1863, Charles Darwin wrote:
We were all amused at your defence of stamp collecting and collecting generally... Who would ever have thought of your collecting Wedgwood-ware! ... We are degenerate descendants of old Josiah W., for we have not a bit of pretty ware in the house.61
To which Hooker replied three days later:
I am quite aware of your insensibility to Wedgwood ware. Were it otherwise I do not think I could have gone into the foible, for I should have bored you out of your life to beg, buy, borrow and steal for me.62
So when, in February 1858, Charles wanted to buy 'some nice Water-Colour drawings
& framed with a good margin, & some of the best in the old drawing-room likewise new framed, [which] will make the new Drawing Room look stunning' ,63 it was easy to send the duplicate vase up to London to sell it for £75 on 3 April, as recorded in his account book.64 On 10 March, in a letter to Trenham Reeks (1823/4-1879), curator and librarian of the Museum of Practical Geology in Jermyn Street, Darwin thanks him for his assistance over the Barberini Vase65: Meteyard66 wrote that the Vase was given to that museum (though clearly not by Charles Darwin, as she claimed), and a, search has produced no record of its purchase when it arrived there in about 1858.67 It was transferred to the Victoria and Albert Museum (reg. 2418-1901), where it is now, in 1901. When Josiah II died in 1843, his estate, Maer Hall in Staffordshire, was sold the next year, and in what Charles called the lottery of the division of its contents, he and Emma got 'the China, the Barberini vase [marked number 12], & wax releifs [sic]... & a very fine prize it is.'59 The wax reliefs, many of them made by Flaxman, were those prepared as models for Wedgwood bas-reliefs, and were used by the children as playthings and often damaged as a result. Trenham Reeks was asked to look at and value the 30 of the 'figures in wax' on slate slabs, that remained in good enough condition to sell, in the letter of 10 March 1858,65 when he was assisting with the Barberini Vase, and on 13 August Charles wrote to him:
What is the lowest price I will take for the lot. I am quite at a loss what to answer. I do not care for them myself & shd be glad to buy pictures with the money.. .68
An entry in his account book, dated 28 August, indicates that he accepted £150 for them,69 money that he may have used to buy a billiard table for £53 18s on 24 February 1859.70
Emma kept the Portland Vase (with the number 12 in graphite on its lip) that came from her father, Josiah n, in 1844, at Down House until she died in 1896, when it became the possession of her third son, Sir Francis Darwin. On his death in 1925, it passed to his son, Bernard Darwin (1876-1961), whose wife, Eily (Elinor Monsell, 1871-1954), disliked it and kept it in sawdust in an old biscuit tin.71 It then went to Sir Robin Darwin (1910-1973), who placed it on loan to the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1959, until selling it in 1965. It is now in Birmingham, Alabama, at the Museum of Art.
Josiah Wedgwood IPs eldest son, Josiah III (1795-1880), brother of Emma Darwin (see Appendix 2), showed little interest in working for the family firm, and, wishing to live in the south, bought Leith Hill Place in Surrey in 1837 on marrying Caroline Darwin (1800-1888), sister of Charles. They did not move there until the year after he had retired from the works in 1841.
Josiah III inherited an unnumbered copy of the Portland Vase from his father, and when his widow, Caroline, died at Leith Hill Place in 1888, the house and its contents including the Vase became the property of their eldest daughter, Sophy Wedgwood (1842-1911). On her death, it passed to her next sister, Margaret Vaughan Williams (1843-1937), whose son Hervey (1869-1944) became the new owner in 1937.72 When he died, all was left to his brother, the composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958), who presented the house to the National Trust in 1945, and bequeathed the Vase to the Wedgwood Museum at Barlaston, where it has been alongside the copies possessed by Josiah Wedgwood I and Thomas Hope since 1966.
Appendix 1. Selective family tree of descendants of Erasmus Dar
m(l) Mary Howard 1740-1770
Erasmus Darwin, F.R.S. 1731-1802
= Mary Parker 1753-1820
m(2) Elizabeth Pole
Robert W. Darwin, F.R.S.
1766-1848 m. Susannah Wedgwood
Charles R. Darwin,
m. Emma Wedgwood
m H. Hadley
Mary Parker 1774-1859
Eliza Hadley ca. 1810-1857/8
m. S.T. Galton
William Erasmus Darwin 1839-1914
George Howard Darwin, F.R.S. 1845-1912
Bernard Darwin 1876-1961
F Galt 182
George Pember Darwin  b.1928
George Erasmus Darwin  b.1927
Ursula Mommens b.1908
Robin Darwin 1910-1973
Appendix 2. Selective family tree of Erasmus Darwin's first family with that of josiah wedgwood
Erasmus Darwin, F.R.S.
— Mary Howard 1740-1770
Josiah Wedgwood I,
 Robert Waring Darwin, RR.S. = Susannah Wedgwood 1766-1848 I 1765-1817
Sarah Wedgwood 1734-1815
Josiah II 1769-1843
Elizabeth Allen 1764-1846
Caroline Darwin 1800-1888
Charles R. Darwin, RR.S. 1809-1882
William Erasmus Darwin 1839-1914
George Howard Darwin, RR.S.
Francis Darwin, RR.S. 1848-1925
Leonard Darwin 1850-1943
Horace Darwin, RR.S. 1851-1928
Emma Wedgwood 1808-1896
Josiah III 1795-1880
Sophy Wedgwood 1842-1911
Lucy Wedgwood 1846-1919
Margaret Wedgwood 1843-1937
Arthur Vaughan Williams 1834-1875
- Hervey Vaughan Williams
- Margaret Vaughan Williams
- Ralph Vaughan Williams
The numbers of unnamed siblings are given in square brackets.
I am grateful to the Syndics of Cambridge University Library and the Trustees of the Wedgwood Museum, Barlaston, Stoke-on-Trent, for permission to quote from manuscripts in their possession, and to the Trustees of the British Museum and of the Wedgwood Museum for permission to reproduce photographs. I am also grateful for help given by Dr Erasmus Barlow; Dr Janet Browne; Aileen Dawson, British Museum; Ann Eatwell, Victoria and Albeit Museum; Dr Desmond King-Hele, F.R.S.; Lynn Miller, Wedgwood Museum; Jon Smith and Alison Sproston, Wren Library, Trinity College, Cambridge; Dr Jon Topham, The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, Cambridge University Library; and Sir Martin Wedgwood. Darwin Pedigrees by Dr R.B. Freeman, London (privately printed, 1984) and The Descendants of Josiah Wedgwood FRSy a chart made in 1959 by the late Helen Pease, have been invaluable in providing family details.
1 Pietro Santi Bartoli, Gli antichi sepolchri, plates 80,84,85 and 86 (Rome, 1697).
2 W. Gudenrath, K. Painter, D. Whitehouse and I.C. Freestone, The Portland Vase'. J. Glass Studies 32,12-188 (1990); Aileen Dawson, "The Portland Vase', with appendix: 'Early copies of the Portland Vase', in Masterpieces of Wedgwood, pp. 112-125 (British Museum Press, 1984; revised edn, 1995).
3 Brian Fothergill, Sir William Hamilton—Envoy Extraordinary, pp. 192-196 (Faber and Faber, London, 1969).
4 Hamilton reported on the activities of Vesuvius from 1765 to 1767 in a series of letters addressed to James Douglas, 14th Earl of Morton (1702-1768), P.R.S. 1764-68, and was elected F.R.S. in 1766. Sir William Hamilton, Observations on Mount Vesuvius, Mount Etna, and other Volcanos in a Series of Letters addressed to the Royal Society (London, 1772); Campi Phlegraei, Observations on the Volcanos of the Two Sicilies as they have been communicated to the Royal Society of London, 2 vols (Naples, 1776. Supplement, 1779); 'Of the earthquakes which happened in Italy from February to May 1783', Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. 73,169-208 (1783); 'An Account of the Late Eruption of Mount Vesuvius by the Rt Hon. Sir W. Hamilton K.B., F.R.S. Dated Naples Aug. 25,1794', Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond., 73-116(1795).
5 I.D. Jenkins and K. Sloan, Vases & Volcanoes: Sir William Hamilton and His Collection (British Museum Press, 1996).
6 William Hamilton and d'Hancarville, Collection of Etruscan, Greek, and Roman Antiquities from the cabinet of the HonbU W" Hamilton, his Britannick Majesty's Envoy Extraordinary at the Court of Naples (facing this is a second title page in French), 4 vols (Naples, 1766-67). Vols 1 and 2 with pages in English facing pages in French, but in vols 3 and 4 only French text.
7 Robin Reilly, Josiah Wedgwood 1730-1795, p. 80 (London: Macmillan, 1992).
8 Eliza Meteyard, The Life of Josiah Wedgwood, 2 vols (Hurst and Blackett, London, 1865-66. Facsimile edition published by Josiah Wedgwood and Sons, Barlaston, Stoke-on-Trent, 1980: vol. 1, footnote p. 492); EJ.D. Warrillow, History ofEtruria, Staffordshire, England 1760-1951, 3rd (Coronation) edn, p. 3 (Etruscan Publications, Stoke-on-Trent, 1953). Meteyard wrote that it was possibly Dr Darwin, with his well-known love of classical allusions, who recommended the name Etruria. This name was first mentioned by Wedgwood in a letter to Bentley in August 1767, when he used the alternative classical spelling of
Hetruria. Wedgwood had left any schooling at 14 when he became an apprentice potter, and Bentley, a cautious businessman who had had a far better education, corrected this spelling by December 1767. It is not known at whose suggestion the name arose, but most agree that Darwin was the likely suggester.
9 Reilly, op. cit. (note 7), p. 72.
10 Reilly, op. cit. (note 7), pp. 62-75.
11 Josiah Wedgwood I to Thomas Bentley, 8 November and 17 December 1766, WMS E25-18132 and E25-18177 in the Wedgwood Archival Collection currently housed at Keele University. In February 1767 Wedgwood had reached an informal agreement for a partnership with Bentley (E25-18186), that became operational on 14 November 1768 (E25-18213), but was only formally signed on 10 August 1769.
12 Reilly, op. cit. (note 7), p. 133.
13 Fothergill, op. cit. (note 3), pp. 113-118.
14 Francesco Bartolozzi's engravings of the Portland Vase after drawings by G.B. Cipriani were published by John Boy dell on 20 April 1786.
15 John Flaxman to Josiah Wedgwood I, 5 February 1784, WMS E2-30188.
16 Dawson, op. cit. (note 2), p. 116.
17 Josiah Wedgwood I to Sir William Hamilton, 16 June 1787, WMS E26-19090.
18 Reilly, op. cit. (note 7), pp. 295-296.
19 Sir William Hamilton, Collection of Engravings from Ancient Vases mostly of Pure Greek Workmanship discovered in Sepulchres in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, 4 vols (Naples, 1791-95).
20 Fothergill, op. cit. (note 3), p. 402.
21 D. Edwards, Thomas Hope's Wedgwood purchases', Ars Ceramica, no. 13,24-25 (1996), published by The Wedgwood Society of New York.
22 Dawson, op. cit. (note 2), pp. 112-114.
23 N. Williams, The Breaking and Remaking of the Portland Vase, pp. 27-29 (British Museum Publications, 1989).
24 E. Simon, Die Portlandvase (Mainz, 1957); B. Ashmole, 'A New Interpretation of the Portland Vase', J. Hellenic Studies 87,1-17 (1967); D.E.L. Haynes, The Portland Vase, 2nd revised edition (London, 1975); J.G.F. Hind, 'Greek and Roman epic scenes on the Portland Vase', J. Hellenic Studies 99,20-25 (1979); D.B. Harden, Glass of the Caesars (Milan, 1987); K. Painter and D. Whitehouse,' VI Interpretation of the scenes', in Gudenrath et al., op. cit. (note 2), pp. 130-136.
25 N. Williams, op. cit. (note 23), pp. 27-29.
26 Josiah Wedgwood I to Sir William Hamilton, 24 June 1786, WMS E26-18976.
27 Sir William Hamilton to Josiah Wedgwood 1,24 July 1786. Quoted by W. Mankowitz, The Portland Vase and the Wedgwood Copies, pp. 29-30 (London, 1952).
28 Reilly, op. cit. (note 7), pp. 313-315.
29 -► Josiah Wedgwood, Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. 72, 305-326 (1782).
30 Reilly, op. cit. (note 7), p. 329.
31 Reilly, op. cit. (note 7), pp. 318-321.
32 Josiah Wedgwood I to Sir William Hamilton, 24 June 1786, WMS E26-18976.
33 E. Meteyard, op. cit. (note 8), vol. 2, pp. 580-581.
34 D. King-Hele, Doctor of Revolution—The Life and Genius of Erasmus Darwin, p. 5 8 (Faber and Faber, London, 1977). The first letter from Josiah Wedgwood to Darwin was probably that of 3 April 1765 (Cambridge University Library MS DAR 227.3: 4), but Wedgwood must have met Darwin before this.
35 Meteyard, op. cit. (note 8), vol. 1, pp. 219-229. Why Josiah Wedgewood's knee became stiff and painful after a bad attack of smallpox is not clear. Meteyard's account makes a septic arthritis unlikely and raises the possibility that the arthritis was an immunological consequence of the infection.
36 Meteyard, op. cit. (note 8), vol. 2, pp. 38^41; Josiah Wedgwood I to Thomas Bentley, 14 July 1768,WMSE25-18205.
37 Josiah Wedgwood I to Erasmus Darwin, 28 June 1789, WMS E26-19001.
38 Reilly, op. cit. (note 7), p. 322.
39 Erasmus Darwin to Josiah Wedgwood I, October 1789, C.U.L. MS DAR 227. 1: 117.
40 Sir Joshua Reynolds's WMS note on the Portland Vase of 15 June 1790 is quoted by Mankowitz, op. cit. (note 27), p. 35, but can no longer be found.
41 The 'Oven Book' records firings at Etruria between 27 May 1791 and 31 December 1796. WMS 53-30016.
42 Reilly, op. cit. (note 7), p. 328.
43 Edwards, op. cit. (note 21), p. 27.
44 Dawson, op. cit. (note 2), pp. 149-150.
45 [Erasmus Darwin], The Botanic Garden—A Poem in Two Parts. Part I containing The Economy of Vegetation' with Additional Notes (J. Johnson, St Paul's Church Yard, 1791; 2nd edn, 1791; 6th, 1824). Part II containing The Loves of the Plants' with Philosophical Notes (J. Johnson, St Paul's Church Yard, 1789; 2nd edn, 1790; 3rd, 1791; 7th, 1824). 1st edn of Part I is usually bound with 3rd edn of Part II.
46 Erasmus Darwin to Joseph Johnson, 23 May 1784, Letter 84G, in The Letters of Erasmus Darwin (ed. D. King-Hele), pp. 139-140 (Cambridge University Press, 1981).
47 Josiah Wedgwood I to Erasmus Darwin, July 1789, WMS E26-19002.
48 Josiah Wedgwood, Account of the Barberini now Portland Vase. With various explications of its bas-reliefs that have been given by different authors (London, 1788). He gave a copy to the British Museum, now in the Library of the Department of Medieval and Later Antiquities. Also in letter to Erasmus Darwin, October 1789, WMS E26-19004.
49 Josiah Wedgwood I to Erasmus Darwin, 17 November 1789, WMS E26-19000.
50 Erasmus Darwin to Josiah Wedgwood 1,9 July 1791. Quoted in G. Keynes, 'Blake and the Wedgwoods', in Blake Studies—Essays on his life and work, revised 2nd edn, p. 60 (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1971).
51 Joseph Johnson to Erasmus Darwin, 23 July 1791. Quoted in Keynes, op. cit. (note 50), pp. 60-61.
52 King-Hele, op. cit. (note 34), p. 213.
53 Keynes, op. cit. (note 50), pp. 61-65.
54 Josiah Wedgwood I to Erasmus Darwin, July 1789, WMS E26-19002.
55 There is no mention of any Portland Vase copy in the Wills of Josiah Wedgwood I, II and III, or of Erasmus, Robert Waring and Charles Darwin.
56 Reginald Darwin to Eliza Meteyard, 1866, Wedgwood Mosley MS at Keele University, W/M484.
57 Sir George Howard Darwin to Josiah Wedgwood and Sons, Etruria Museum, Stoke-on-Trent. 24 May 1908, WMS E33-24899 note on how Erasmus Darwin's copy of the Portland Vase came into his possession.
58 Robert Waring Darwin to Josiah Wedgwood II, 20 Octoberl793, WMS L2-240.
59 Charles Darwin to Susan Darwin, 27 November 1844? C.U.L. MS DAR 92, pp. 9-10. The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 3, p. 86 (Cambridge University Press, 1987).
60 Sir Francis Darwin's Recollections, c.1884. C.U.L. MS DAR 140 (3), pp. 75-76.
61 Charles Darwin to J.D. Hooker, 3 January 1863, in The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, 3 vols (ed. F. Darwin), vol. 3, pp. 4-5 (John Murray, London, 1887).
62 J.D. Hooker to Charles Darwin, 6 January 1863, in Life and Letters of Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker, M.D., 2 vols (ed. L Huxley), vol. 1, pp. 77-78 (London, 1918).
63 Charles Darwin to William Erasmus Darwin (1839-1914), his eldest son, 11 [February 1858]. C.U.L. MS DAR 210.6. Correspondence of CD, 1991, vol. 7, pp. 21-22.
64 Charles Darwin, Account Book 3 April 1858, Down House MS.
65 Charles Darwin to Trenham Reeks, 10 March . British Geological Survey Archives GSM1/501. Correspondence of CD, 1991, vol. 7, p. 45.
66 Eliza Meteyard, The Wedgwood Handbook, pp. 303-304 (London, 1875).
67 Communication from Ann Eatwell.
68 Charles Darwin to Trenham Reeks (?), 13 August [ 1858]. British Geological Survey Archives GSM 1/501. Correspondence of CD, 1991, vol. 7, p. 153.
69 Charles Darwin, Account Book 28 August 1858, Down House MS.
70 Sir Francis Darwin, op. cit. (note 60), p. 75. In his recollections, FD wrote that Charles Darwin 'sold a gold watch given to his father by Lord Powis [Edward Herbert, 2nd Earl of Powis (1785-1848)] —The beautiful Flaxman things & the Barberini vase were all sold at a nominal sum, part of the money (or all ?) being spent on a billiard table.' Account Book 24 February 1859, Down House MS.
71 L.M. Beeson, The Darwin Portland Vase Number 72, pp. 87-90. Proceedings of the 11th Wedgwood International Seminar, 5-7 May 1966.
72 C.V. Wedgwood, Leith Hill Place (privately printed, 1947).
Return to homepage
Citation: John van Wyhe, editor. 2002-. The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online. (http://darwin-online.org.uk/)
File last updated 2 July, 2012