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"The Portland Vase"
Etching by Francesco Bartolozzi RA (1727–1815) after a drawing by Giovanni Battista Cipriani RA (1727–1785)
Published by John Boydell, Cheapside and Anthony Torre, Pall Mall, 1786
On Auvergne laid paper, crucifix and ‘IHS’ watermark
Dimensions: 25 cm x 17.5 cm (image); 30.5 cm x 22 cm (sheet)
Lettered below the image "G.B. Cipriani delin. / Bartolozzi ſculp. / Publiſh'd as the Act directs April 20th. 1786 by J. Boydel [sic] Cheapside & Torre Pall Mall"
See British Museum - T,8.57
A full-size illustration to scale of one side of the Portland Vase with a classical scene of a female figure reclining beneath a tree, bare breasted with drapery around her waist and legs, her right hand to her head, a torch hangs from her left hand, its head towards the ground, another female figure is seated on the right looking back left towards her, a young male figure seated to left, looking to right.
This print, which is an exact scale illustration of the Portland Vase, originates from the time when the vase's presence in England was hardly known. Published on 20th April it is important for being ahead of the vase's 1786 sale to the Duke of Portland (from whom it was to gain its name) and for pre-dating Josiah Wedgwood's subsequent facsimile reproductions, which made it a more celebrated object. It also predates, by five years, the engraving of the vase undertaken by William Blake for Erasmus Darwin's "The Botanic Garden: a poem, in two parts" (printed by Joseph Johnson in London in 1791). Darwin and Johnson had Blake make a new print as they had concerns that using this earlier version might be an infringement of Sir William Hamilton's copyright.
The Portland Vase stands out as a key object in the inspiration of neoclassicism. Regarded as one of the masterpieces of classical art, the vase was a piece of Roman cameo glass, made in around 25 AD. It was thought to have been unearthed from a tomb in Rome in the 1580's, supposedly that of emperor Alexander Severus.
The list of those involved in the vase's story is extraordinary. The first mention of the vase was in 1633 in a letter to Peter Paul Rubens from the French polymath Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc. He reported that he had encountered the vase on a visit to Rome some thirty years earlier. At that time it belonged to Cardinal Francesco Maria Bourbon del Monte Santa Maria. On del Monte's death in 1626 the Vase passed to his relative Alessandro del Monte, who sold it to Cardinal Antonio Barberini. It remained with the Barberini family until 1780 when it was sold by Princess Cordelia Barberini-Colonna to the Scottish antiquary James Byres, passing quickly to the collection of the British diplomat and classicist Sir William Hamilton in England. It was subsequently acquired in 1784, in secrecy (for around £2,000), by the passionate collector (and richest woman in England ) the Dowager Duchess of Portland. It became a highlight of her private 'Portland Museum'. Her ownership was short-lived, she died in 1785 leaving instruction for her entire collection to be disposed of at auction. Over 4,000 lots were sold from her Whitehall residence between 24th April to 3th July 1786. The vase appeared as Lot 4155 on the final day of the sales and was bought for the sum of 980 guineas (£1,029), on the recommendation of Sir Joshua Reynolds (who saw it as being one of the masterpieces of classical antiquity), by her grandson, William Cavendish-Bentinck, 3rd Duke of Portland.
In February 1784 the sculptor John Flaxman had seen the vase while it was with Sir William Hamilton in his apartments in King's Street, St James's. Flaxman's encounter with this extraordinary object prompted him to write to Josiah Wedgwood:
“I wish you may soon come to town, to see Sir William 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 and jasper."1
Presumably, Cipriani was able to make the drawing which formed the basis of this print during the time the vase was with Sir William Hamilton. Only a few days after his acquisition of the vase, the Duke of Portland made an agreement (on 10th June 1786) to loan it to Josiah Wedgwood for the purposes of emulating its form in jasperware. Viewed as one of his greatest achievements, Wedgwood finally made satisfactory copies of the vase in 1789/90.
1. See p.115, Aileen Dawson "Masterpieces of Wedgwood in the British Museum", British Museum Publications, 1984