Josiah Wedgwood's Portland Vase

Josiah Wedgwood I's (1730 – 95) Portland Vase is one of the most well-known Wedgwood ceramic designs. It demonstrates a level of craftsmanship and detail which makes it an excellent example of British skill and creativity, but is a copy of a Roman glass vase from 25CE.

In the 18th century, the original glass vase was considered one of the greatest works of art of antiquity. For Josiah I, the process of creating his own version meant surpassing the arts of the ancient world. He believed that by copying a piece widely regarded as a pinnacle of Roman craft, he could show the technical and artistic superiority of his own ceramics factory.

The original Portland Vase, also known as the Barberini Vase as it was in the famous collection of the powerful Barberini family of Rome, is a cameo glass (etched glass) vessel discovered in a Roman tomb. Discovered around 1600, its early history is uncertain. It was made of two layers of glass, dark-blue overlaid with white, which was carved away into a low-relief cameo, resulting in white figures on a darker background. The vase came to Britain in the hands of the ambassador to Naples, Sir William Hamilton (1730 – 1803), and it became an overnight sensation in Britain.

The prolific collector Margaret Cavendish Bentinck, Duchess of Portland (1715 – 85), bought the vase from Hamilton in 1784. Although cuttingly described by Horace Walpole as "a simple woman, and intoxicated only by empty vases", the lavish thirty-eight-day posthumous sale of the Duchess's collection was one of the most anticipated events of the period, with the Portland Vase featuring on the sale catalogue's frontispiece. The vase remained in the family, as it was bought by her son the Third Duke of Portland (1738 – 1809).

Josiah I's single-mindedness prompted him to write to the Duke, requesting to borrow the vase so that he could copy it in jasper – a unique type of stoneware clay first developed by Josiah I in the 1770s.

"You will be pleased, I am sure, to hear what a treasure is just now put into my hands, I mean the exquisite Barberini vase with which you enriched this island, and which, now … we may call … the Portland vase…"

Josiah Wedgwood I's letter to William Hamilton, June 1786
Black vase with two handles and figures and trees in white
'First edition' copy of the Portland Vase, factory of Josiah Wedgwood, 1790, Etruria, Stoke-on-Trent, England. Museum no. WE.8000-2014. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In 1786, Josiah I began his project to create his copy of the Portland Vase, and in 1790, following almost five years of experiments, trials and tests, the first editions of the vase were ready to be launched to a select group of subscribers.

The vase was made from jasperware clay, with white modelled details and figures placed on to the blue-black background. The vase body was thrown on a potter's wheel, then turned to remove excess clay and achieve the refined silhouette, before the handles and handcrafted figures were added. The whole vase was then fired in the kiln. The colour of the clay was designed to emulate the original vase as closely as possible – jasper clay can be stained a range of colours and Josiah I developed a special mixture of colours to imitate the blue-black of the glass. The handles were also carefully modelled to have the same asymmetry of the original. Moulds were made from the original vase to ensure absolute accuracy, with each sculptural element recreated using plaster and wax models. The large number of experimental trials show the obsessive nature of Josiah I's intention to perfect the piece.

Two black and white vases with two handles on each
Left to right: Full-size trial copy of the Portland Vase, air bubbles have formed where gases inside the clay have expanded in the heat of the kiln, factory of Josiah Wedgwood, about 1789, Stoke-on-Trent, England. Museum no. WE.7999-2014. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London; Full-size trial copy of the Portland Vase, where reliefs failed to adhere to the surface of the vase body, factory of Josiah Wedgwood, about 1789, Stoke-on-Trent, England. Museum no. WE.7998-2014. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Many of the records of Josiah I's experiments to perfect the Portland Vase survive in the collection and archives of the V&A Wedgwood Collection. The trials for the Portland Vase show the scientific precision required to achieve the perfect result. The 'oven book', or firing record, of the factory details the many failures he experienced during his self-imposed task. The firing process was unpredictable – the first attempt had air bubbles form on the surface where gases from inside the clay expanded in the heat. The record of the second trial showed where the delicate reliefs did not adhere to the surface and broke off in the kiln. Once each element of the design was perfected, several full-size versions of the whole vase were created.

six ceramic oval-shapes with raised images of a bearded man's face, cherub and plants in blues, whites and grey/brown
Trials for the reliefs on the vase showing the tests Josiah undertook to emulate the translucency of the cut glass, factory of Josiah Wedgwood and sons, about 1789, Stoke-on-Trent, England. Museum nos. WE.3980-2014, WE.3962-2014, WE.3966-2014, WE.3979-2014, WE.8121-2014, WE.8122-2014. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Josiah celebrated the creation of his copy with an exhibition, concluding, "My great work is the Portland Vase".

Today, statues of Josiah Wedgwood show him holding his iconic object. A first edition Portland Vase, along with Wedgwood's moulds, models and trials, are on display at the V&A Wedgwood Collection, Barlaston, Stoke-on-Trent.

Background image: 'First edition' copy of the Portland vase, factory of Josiah Wedgwood, 1790, Etruria, Stoke-on-Trent, England. Museum no. WE-8000-2014. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London