Part 8: The Magnificence of Blue and White Wedgwood Jasper is Best Seen in the Portland Vase, (Continued)
Above a vintage Wedgwood recreation of the Portland Vase. The first part of this story ran yesterday, and can be found HERE.
By James C. Johnston, Jr.
The Duchess of Portland was also a great beauty and a close friend of Sir William, and Queen Charlotte. George III, unlike his royal antecedents on the thrones of England and Hanover, was a well behaved gentleman who was loyal to his Queen Charlotte, whom he loved most faithfully and his fifteen children. The poor king went a tad mad in 1787, and in his madness, he developed an extreme romantic interest in the Duchess of Portland, and more than that, he attempted to act on it. This behavior, which would have been deemed normal in his royal Great-Grandfather, Grandfather, and father, and not seen as mad at all, was not normal in him, and when the King came to himself and regained his senses, George was at his most ingratiating in his protests of wanting forgiveness for his boorish behavior from the Duchess.
The well-bred Duchess said that she had no memory of the King’s bad behavior. All I can say is “Well done them!” Let the world, and some fretfully whining members of the present royal family take a lesson in personal dignity, the art of high diplomacy, and the basic good manners that reflect good breeding.
The Portland Vase was given to the nation by way of the Portlands in the early Nineteenth Century and was placed in a special case in the British Museum. But, was it safe? The answer is, unfortunately, an emphatic “No.” Enter another mad man. This time he was not a Royal. In point of fact he was a profoundly disturbed student attending Trinity College in the University of Cambridge. Trinity had been founded in Cambridge by Henry VIII at the end of his life around 1546. This place of higher-learning attracted hard working poorer students that actually took degrees unlike a lot of the British Nobility who only went “To University” because their fathers wanted them to network with other aristocrats, perhaps go to the occasional lecture, and maybe even read something. After all, gentlemen of that period had better things to do with their time other than to anything so mundane and pedestrian as to actually study. “Degree taking” was for the middle class that actually did all the real work of running the Empire after all. A gentleman was expected to pursue women, pleasure, and sport as a respectable set of activities.
Real students at university in those days were under a lot of academic and fiscal pressure if they were serious about their careers and a bit on the poor side as many of them were. One day in 1845, a drunken and impecunious Trinity student by the name of William Lloyd entered the British Museum in a highly stressed and agitated state. He wandered about among the treasures displayed there for a bit and then went “full-out crazy” grabbing up a marble bust and smashing a special display case to bits. Inside of that particular case was the Portland Vase now rendered into hundreds of pieces of glass shards.
It was almost as if a great man had died, or been brutally murdered, in academic and artistic circles. This fabulous object had been destroyed by a little nobody who resented the fact that he was very poor non-entity in a world rich with treasure. I am merely reflecting the values of England in 1845, and this is the way the people who lived in that time would have seen it.
As the facts of the unhappy event came out, it was discovered that Student William Lloyd was actually a poor lad named William Mulcahy. And as a result of some degree of public sympathy, Mulcahy was charged only for the destruction of the display case and not the Ancient Roman Bust or the Portland Vase. As a result of a trial later held at the Old Bailey, Lloyd, or Mulcahy, was found guilty and fined three pounds or two months in prison. Mulcahy had no money, so off he went as a guest of Queen Victoria to Her Majesty’s Prison. Somebody unknown to history took pity on Mulcahy and paid his fine. Thus ended one tale, but what happened to the Portland Vase?
All of its pieces were lovingly collected and placed in trays like pieces of a three dimensional jig-saw puzzle. And what a puzzle it was. Later in that fatal year 1848, Museum Keeper, Bernard Ashmole, whose name would later be attached to the famous Ashmolean Museum, had the museum’s restorer, John Doubleday, put the Portland Vase back together again. When Doubleday was finished with his task, he found that he had a problem like that which has hounded thousands of young men who service their own automobiles on the weekend in the days of simpler technology. When he was done putting the vase back together, Doubleday had 37 pieces of the vase left over that he couldn’t account for. They were collected and put in a box, then placed in a custom made tray. Over the following years the tray and glass shards were variously lost, found, some used in the 1948 restoration, and in subsequent restorative efforts.
Today the Portland Vase can still be seen, but its delicate condition is still considered rather delicate, and it is not permitted to be taken out of the museum. I am an enlightened man, and a student and fan of the Age of Enlightenment, which was the hallmark of the gentlemen of Josiah Wedgewood’s era. Wedgwood himself was a Unitarian, self-educated, and a genius who also fought the good fight against slavery and capital punishment. I will admit that my finer thoughts and sentiments are at odds with what I would have liked to do to the Mulcahy creature who was nothing less than a world class vandal! I would have been far more primitive in my physical reaction to him and used the instruments of society’s revenge then available to me to punish his wanton vandalism! I would have harkened back to a much earlier period of Western Civilization in a most creative way.
When I was a high school kid, I was well under way as a collector, and my very dear grandmother had a friend who was buying a large dinner service of light blue Wedgwood jasper ware. She knew that I loved the stuff, so she arranged to have her friend buy one extra demitasse cup and saucer for me at the horrific price of five dollars. That was a big economic sacrifice for her more than 65 years ago. Every time I see that piece, which is almost every day, I remember all the little things my dear Grandmother used to do and buy for me as surprise gifts. I always wish that I could have been even nicer to her than I was to this dear and generous woman. Even love can be measured in Wedgwood Jasper.
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.