Part 8: The Magnificence of Blue and White Wedgwood Jasper is Best Seen in the Portland Vase


Wedgewood Demitasse given to the author around 1958 by his grandmother, Mrs. Gertrude Foss.

By James C. Johnston, Jr.
Who does not love Wedgwood dark blue and white Jasper? Josiah Wedgwood was the genius who hit upon the concept for these great matte glazed, or jasper wares. These pieces which famously can be found in the forms of vases, tea sets, trays, boxes of all sizes, jugs of all shapes, and many other forms were decorated with thinner slip cast white clay images made in a mold and applied to the surface of the denser dark blue pottery by skilled hands. He discovered the process and knew that these beautiful jasper objects he would make would surpass all other pottery in beauty and artistic impact.

This new process of making art pottery was calculated to make a dramatic blue and white cameo effect that would capture the attention of the world for centuries to come. Jasper was inspired by Ancient Roman cameo glass then being celebrated as part of a revival of interest in the classical world of Greece and Rome and all the artifacts that brought those heroic days of Long-Ago to the New Classic Age of the Seventeenth Century Enlightenment. Of all of the pottery made by Josiah Wedgewood down to this very day, this blue and white jasper pottery is the most popular of all of Wedgwood’s great innovations. Josiah Wedgwood was an innovative man that explored all sources for new materials. He even had agents in America who secured treaties with the Cherokees to secure fine grained clays for his best work.

The prize I personally always wanted to own was, and is, jasper Portland Vase. I really cannot die until I have owned at least one really good example of this best work of the Great Wedgwood and then have at least a decade or two to enjoy it. If you could hold a nice 1770 example of this fabulous object up to the light, and look through the bottom of the vase, you will see a lithophane of remarkable handsomeness of a Zeus-Like-God-Type-Figure in profile with a full beard and a look and attitude of absolute and sublime regal serenity.

The very sad truth is that back in 1972, I could have bought one for only five hundred dollars. I was just twenty eight years old and tooling around the Cape, Cape Cod that is, in my 1959 Mercedes Benz 190. It was a beautiful day, and my car was jammed with tons of great material that the Cape Shops were famed for. I was a teacher on summer vacation. I was making lots of money at my antique shop in which I was in partnership with my mother. Antiques were popular, and sophisticated buyers knew exactly what they were looking at in those days. Life was very good.

I came to this great looking house with an Antiques for Sale
sign on the well shaded front lawn. I parked my car and walked into the shop which was presided over by a nice guy who was about my own age. I looked about at his choice inventory, bought some great inlayed boxes from the early 1800’s, some nice Bennington Blue decorated Fenton jugs and pots, some early redware pottery, a nice 1790’s tiger maple candle stand, and then I saw it.

There it was on top of a case holding art glass, a Portland Vase in white and Black Jasper. It wasn’t my well beloved Blue Jasper, but it was magnificent. I looked at it. I asked permission to hold it. I discovered that it was perfect in every way, and it was fairly early. It probably dated from the 1820’s. I then looked over at the dealer. I had bought a lot of material at good prices, so I asked my usual, “What would be my discount? It’s marked $750.00.”

“Oh, I guess that I could let you have it for $500.00,” he said.

All of a sudden I was very hungry. I could detect the faint aroma of lobster wafting in through the windows and door. My power of concentration was broken. “I’ll tell you what,” I said. “Let me pay you for what I have already, and I’ll think about the Wedgwood.”

“That’s O.K.,” the dealer said. “But I might have to duck out before closing time. My wife is in the hospital having our first baby. I might not be here too much longer.”

I paid him what I owed him, and he helped me pack my goods into the car. I wished him good luck on the occasion of his impending paternity, and tracked down that lobster, and it turned out to be so good, but when I returned to the shop to buy the black and white jasper vase the door was locked!

The child born that day is now well over fifty. I never again found that shop open, and I never got to own a decent jasper Portland Vase. Life is just so unfair! I still feel cheated by fate.

Above, a Wedgwood tray in deep blue jasper, c. 1790.

It is thought by many experts that the portrait in the base of the Portland Vase is not that of Zeus at all. The idea has been indeed put fourth that the portrait is of Priam, the last King of Troy, or his son Paris who started the Trojan War by stealing the beautiful Queen Helen, wife of Menelaus, King of Sparta and brother of the King of Mycenae, Agamemnon, who was leader of all Greek forces fighting Troy in the Trojan War. One founding story of Rome credits the Trojan Hero Aeneas with the founding of the city. Thus this Trojan hero is made Father of Rome and would logically be celebrated on the base of the original fabulous First Century vase.

In Eighteenth Century Europe, there was a huge revival of interest in the artifacts of the Classical Era of Ancient Greece and Rome. The furniture of George Hepplewhite, Thomas Sheraton, the Adams Brothers, and that made on “The Continent”, the furniture styles of Louis XVI, The Directory, and Empire, of the later Napoleonic Period, all reflected this worship of the fabled ancient past. Josiah Wedgwood also seized upon these popular ancient themes for making his exquisite Jasper Pottery wares.

Above, lavender jasper pitcher, c. 1820.

Wedgwood’s making copies of the much publicized Portland Vase was only a logical outcome to this historic and cultural movement, now known as Neo-Classicism, but the real story of The Portland Vase reads like a romantic novel of the type which was so popular in this period. The original Portland Vase is a most wondrous piece of ancient Roman Cameo Glass. It is thought to have been made in the early part of the first century of the Common Era. It is just less than eight and a half inches high and bulbous in shape. To me, it always looked much larger because it is so imposing in its composition and artistic dynamic.

Above, light blue jasper biscuit jar, c. 1860

It is made of two thick layers of glass which are fused together-one layer fused over the other. The under layer is a deep cobalt blue colored glass while the top is a somewhat thinner layer of white glass which has been carved through to create a work of art of unparalleled mastery. A man, with real artistic sensitivity, cut away the top layer of glass making the most ambitious and beautiful cameo-surfaced-decorated-object featuring magnificent draped human classical figures, trees, and other flora. The beauty of the vase is totally arresting.

I could look at that vase for hours just getting lost in its intrinsic artistic qualities. The great founder of the Humanistic School of Psychology, Karl Rodgers, might even have said that in that moment of artistic ecstasy that I had achieved total self-actualization in that very moment of total admiration and absorption in the beauty of that vase. What anybody else would say does not interest me in the least.

I could also easily become absorbed in the fantastic portraits of the Greatest Beauty of the Neo-Classical Period, Emma Hamilton, as painted by George Romney in the same period. This most famously beautiful woman was featured in many portrait paintings of this time. In addition to her obvious charms, Mrs. Hamilton was witty, intelligent, a fine dancer, a great social organizer, and a fantastic muse for the famous men she chose to admire and who admired her lavishly in return. In another time, Emma might have been a fine career diplomat like the beautiful and intellectual Pamela Harriman, Winston Churchill’s one-time daughter-in-law and President Clinton’s Ambassador to France. The Beautiful Pamela lived almost two centuries later, but she also needs to be celebrated at some future time. But we now find ourselves back in the Eighteenth Century, and alas, all of Emma’s real virtues were not always recognized. She often had to settle for merely being beguiling and worshiped.

Above, nine early jasper Wedgwood pieces dating from 1830-1870.

For more than 1,600 years, the Portland Vase was preserved through the time of the rise and fall of empires, great religious institutions, and civilizations. Part of the cameo vase’s preservation was made possible, because in 235 C.E. it was part of the lavish grave goods of the last of the Roman Severus Emperors, Severus Alexander, a basically decent, man who had followed his notoriously promiscuous cousin, Elagabalus, onto the Imperial Roman Throne of the Roman Empire in 222 C. E. About 1,400 years later the iconic vase was removed from this location in Severus Alexander’s Tomb, and in the early 1600’s the vase came into the possession of The Barberini Family who owned it for a century-and-a-half. In point of fact, this Roman Cameo vase became known as the Barbarini Vase during this period. It is a strange fact that this fantastic cameo vase was much more famous than anyone who would ever come to own it.

Through the agency of the greatest Eighteenth Century English collector of all things fantastic and wonderful, including the famous Elgin Marbles, Sir William Hamilton, the storied Roman Cameo Barbarini vase would come into the hands of the Duchess of Portland. Now it was to be known as “The Portland Vase.” Sir William Hamilton was Ambassador to the Kingdom of Naples for the incredibly long tenure of 1764 to 1800, and the husband of that most exceptional of women, and greatest beauty of her age, Emma Hamilton, whose greatest fame would come to her as a result of her being mistress of Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson, who was the man who saved England with his leadership and planning of the Victory of the Battle of Trafalgar, but that is another story. It is enough to say that Sir William knew quality and recognized ethereal beauty when he saw it, be it of flesh and blood, or fine art. He was a connoisseur par excellence in a great age of connoisseurship. [END PART I, PART 2 COMING SOON)]

James C. Johnston Jr. is a former Franklin selectman, Franklin High School history teacher, and author of "The African Son," a novel , as well as "The Yankee Fleet" and "Odyssey in the Wilderness," (a history of Franklin, Massachusetts). Article copyright James C. Johnston, Jr. 2023, used with permission.

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