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Erasmus Darwin's Wedgwood Copy of the Portland Vase

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Erasmus Darwin's Wedgwood Copy of the Portland Vase


Wedgwood, Josiah (factory) [ULAN info: English potter 1730-1795]


jasper ware (sub-category)






Portland Vase copy, blue-black jasperware with applied white reliefs; on the sides classical scenes; on the base, the head of Paris

Jasper, solid blue-black with white reliefs. Squat ovoid body with incurved neck and everted rim, with two elbowed handles, and disk base. Decorated with two scenes separated by bearded male masks below the handles. Reading from left to right: Side 1. Two square pillars supporting an architrave, behind which is a small shrub. In front of the pillars a nude young man holding a drape behind him in his right hand, steps forward to take the arm of a partly draped woman who sits on the ground, looking back at him, and has a snake in her lap. Eros, holding a bow in his left hand and a torch in his right, flies overhead looking back to the young man. On the right, a bearded man stands in three-quarter profile to left, with his right foot on a heap of stones in front of a tree. He rests his chin on his right hand and his right elbow on his right thigh. To the right behind him there is a slender tree. Side 2. A square pillar with a capital, beside which sits a nude young man on a pile of rocks. He has a drape over his right leg, and looks to the right towards a woman, who reclines on pile of rocks in front of a tree. Her lower body is draped, and she holds a torch pointing downards in her left hand, and has her right arm bent with the hand on her head. In front of her is a square stone with central hole and chamfered edge. On the right is a nude woman, seated on a separate pile of rocks, looking back towards the other two figures. She is partly draped, and holds a sceptre in her left hand. On the base, there is a spray of foliage above the head of a young man, in profile to right, wearing a Phrygian cap, and a cloak, and having his right forefinger to his lips. Accompanied by original fitted travelling case (C.20A-1980)

Production Notes

The production of jasper ware copies of the cameo glass Portland Vase was one of Wedgwood's greatest achievements. The dowager Duchess of Portland, who purchased it from Sir William Hilton in 1784, died in 1785, and a year later Wedgwood borrowed it from her son, the third Duke of Portland, who had bought it at the sale of his mother's collection. After studying it thoroughly, Wedgwood, his son Josiah, and his modellers Webber and Hackwood experimented for three years before the first successful copy was achieved in the late summer of 1789. The exact number of Portland Vase copies made before Wedgwood's death in 1795 is not clear. Surveys of extant vases and documents in the Wedgwood archive indicate that it was between 40 and 50, of which some were defective. This is one of only three known to have retained their original travelling cases.

Production Place

Etruria (factory) (place)

Staffordshire (factory) (county)

England (factory) (country)

Technique Description

solid blue-black jasper, thrown and turned, with applied press-moulded white reliefs


height: (whole): 25.2 cm
width: (whole): 19.1 cm


late 18th century
George III




bought: Darwin, George Pember 1984 (Filtered for: Applied Arts collection)

Dr Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802), Breadsall Priory, Derbyshire; Miss Emma Darwin (1784-1818); Sir Francis Sacheverel Darwin MD (1786-1859); his widow, Harriet Jane, Lady Darwin (d.1866); Reginald Darwin (1818-92), Tern; Admiral Sacheverel Darwin (1844-1900), Tern; his half-second cousin, Charles Darwin's second son, Sir George Howard Darwin FRS (1845-1912), Cambridge; Sir Charles Galton Darwin FRS (1887-1862); George Pember Darwin, by whom lent to the Fitzwilliam in 1963.

Purchased with the Cunliffe Fund, a grant from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and grant-in-aid from the Victoria and Albert Museum.


  1. (1985) Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. The Annual Reports of the Syndicate and of the Friends of the Fitzwilliam for the Year Ending 31 December 1984, Cambridge (Cambs.)
    [comments: Publ. pl. XIV]
  2. Poole, Julia E. (1995) Fitzwilliam Museum Handbooks, English Pottery, Cambridge (Cambs.): Cambridge University Press [page: pp. 86-7]
    [comments: Publ. colour plate p. 87]
  3. (2005) Treasures of the Fitzwilliam Museum, London: Scala [page: 160]
    [comments: Publ.]
  4. Hamlett, Lydia (2007) From Reason to Revolution, Art and Society in Eighteenth-Century Britain, Cambridge (Cambs.): The Fitzwilliam Museum
    [comments: Publ. pl. 11]
  5. Dawson, Aileen (1984) Masterpieces of Wedgwood in the British Museum, London: British Museum Press [page: pp. 112-25]
    [comments: Ref. pp. 112-25 for a discussion of Wedgwood's Portland Vase copy. See pp. 149-50 for a list of known first edition vases]
  6. Freestone, Ian C. (1990) The Portland Vase, Corning: The Corning Museum of Glass [page: 114-188]
    Source title: Journal of Glass Studies (1990)
    [comments: Ref. The original Portland vase and its history is described at length by Freestone, Gudenrath, Painter and Whitehouse. Painter and Whitehouse discuss earlier interpretations of the meaning of the vase, the most frequently posited being that the reliefs represent scenes from the story of Peleus and Thetis. They put forward another interpretation, that the two sides are not from the same story, but interpret the figures as follows:Side 1. Augustus, Atia, his mother, and Neptune. Side 2. Paris, Hecuba, his mother, and Venus. They regard the vase as having been made 'to celebrate Rome's birth from the ashes of Troy, and to honor the man who had inaugurated Rome's golden age', i.e. Augustus.]
  7. Adams, Elizabeth Bryding (1992) The Dwight and Lucille Beeson Wedgwood Collection at the Birmingham Museum of Art, Birmingham, Alabama [page: pp. 141-6]
    [comments: Ref. A copy which descended in the family of Darwin's first wife, and was not the Erasmus Darwin Portland example is in the Dwight and Lucille Beeson Collection in the Birmingham Museum of Art, Alabama, see, pp. 144]
  8. (1987) Silver ande Plate and Collectors Items 1987, London [page: 11] 30 January 1987)
    [comments: Ref. Lot 16, a silver-gilt copy of the Portland Vase by Hunt and Roskell, London, 1897.]
  9. Christie's Highly Important Silver . . . 1991, London: Christie's [page: 42-3] 27 November 1991)
    [comments: Lot 78, a silver-gilt wine bottle holder in two parts copying the Portland Vase, by Philip Rundell, London, 1823. Two more silver-gilt examples are known, one of 1820 sold by Sotheby Parke Bernet, 17 June 1981, lot 78, and one of 1824, both by Philip Rundell.]
  10. Christie's (2005) Portrait Miniatures, Objects of Vertu, Icons and Silver, London, South Kensington: Christie's [page: 96-7] 15-16 June 2005)
    [comments: Cf. pp. 96-7, lot 716, a silver copy by Robert Garrard, 1868, height 23.2 cm. he entry also illustrates a drawing of a Portland Vase by Enoch Wood, sold at Christie’s, King Street, London as part of the Enoch Wood Archive, 8 June, 2005, lot 90.]
  11. Sotheby's (2005) Property from the Estate of Laurance S. Rockefeller, New York: Sotheby's [page: 216-7] 11-12 October 2005)
    [comments: Cf. Lot 234, the silver-gilt copy by Philip Rundell for Rundell Bridge and Rundell of 1820 mentioned above as sold by Sotheby's, New York, 17 June 1981, lot 78.]
  12. Bonhams (2006) Fine British Pottery and Porcelain, London: Bonhams 8 March 2006)
    [comments: Cf. p. , lot , a damaged example. Also illustrated in Bonhams Ceramics News, Spring 2006, pl. 6]

Other Notes

Accession Number

C.20-1984 (Applied Arts)
(Reference Number: 11615; Input Date: 2000-09-04 / Last Edit: 2011-07-22)

Related Object

C.20A-1984 - Case for the Erasmus Darwin Wedgwood Copy of the Portland Vase
C.1-1909 - Portrait Medallion of Dr Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802)
C.2-1904 - Copy of the Portland Vase

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