The Portland Vase – An 18th Century Obesssion

The Portland Vase – An 18th Century Obesssion


The story of the Portland Vase encapsulates so much about the 18th century. It is a story of fascination with the classical world, the acquisition of antiquities and of technological and artistic excellence of British manufacture.

The vase that is known as the Portland Vase is a Roman cameo glass vase, dated to between AD 1 and AD 25. Sir William Hamilton, the British ambassador in Naples, purchased it in 1778-1780 from James Byres, a Scottish art dealer, who had acquired it after it was sold by Cornelia Barberini-Colonna, Princess of Palestrina. Hamilton brought it to England and sold it to Margaret Cavendish-Harley, widow of William Bentinck, 2nd Duke of Portland.

The vase is a Roman two-handled glass amphora dating to between the second half of the 1st century BCE and the early 1st century CE. It has a cameo-like effect decoration which perhaps depicts the marriage of Peleus and Thetis from Greek Mythology.  Standing  24.5 cm in high and 17.7 cm at its maximum width it was made by blowing the dark cobalt blue coloured glass covered with a layer of opaque white cased glass. Large areas of the white glass were then removed to reveal the underlayer of blue. Areas of white were left and carved in relief to depict the scenes. The style of the decoration has led scholars to date the piece to the reign of the first Roman Emperor Augustus (27 BCE – 14 CE). The fineness of detail of the decorative scenes is comparable to the highest quality Roman cut-gems and so it must be the work of a superbly talented gem-cutter or diatretarius.

The scenes on the vase are divided into two parts by a bearded head (perhaps with horns), one under each handle. The first scene has four figures which include a young man leaving a shrine in the countryside and wearing a cloak. The man holds the arm of a semi-naked woman sitting on the ground preoccupied with stroking an animal resembling a snake. Above the woman is the flying figure of Eros with his customary bow and a torch in his right hand. On the right is a bearded male standing between two trees and depicted in a contemplative mood with his chin resting on his hand.

The second scene on the other side of the vase shows three figures all sitting on rocks with a background of a single tree. On the left is a young male next to a column or pillar, whilst in the centre is a young woman with her arm raised to her head and holding a torch which hangs down to the ground. On the far right is another half-dressed woman who holds a sceptre or staff in her left hand.

The two-handled amphora vase is incomplete as it has lost its pointed base and the mouth of the vessel is curiously uneven in the cut. The base was repaired using a similar coloured disk carved in the same style and depicting Paris. Although it is remarkable that such a delicate object has survived at all from antiquity, the vase is not unique, as a similar type vase has been found at Pompeii which dates to the mid-1st century CE and depicts scenes from a grape harvest. However, these cameo-cut vessels are regarded as something of an experiment in Roman glassware, carried out in a limited period spanning just two generations, so they were almost certainly not commonly produced.

It was sold again in 1786 and passed into the possession of the duchess’s son, William Cavendish-Bentinck, the 3rd Duke of Portland who lent it to Josiah Wedgwood who copied it in his new jasperware.

Wedgwood devoted four years of painstaking trials to achieve the perfection required to replicate the vase. He had problems with cracking and blistering and the sprigged reliefs ‘lifted’ during firing. In 1786 he feared that he would never be able to apply the Jasper relief thinly enough to match the glass original’s subtlety and delicacy. However, his copy of The Portland Vase was placed in a private exhibition in Greek Street, Soho, during April and May 1790. The exhibition was so popular that visitor numbers had to be restricted.

Wedgewood’s success inspired a 19th-century competition to duplicate its cameo-work in the glass, with Benjamin Richardson offering a £1,000 prize to anyone who could achieve that feat. Taking three years, glassmaker Philip Pargeter made a copy and John Northwood engraved it, to win the prize. This copy is in the Corning Museum of Glass in Corning, New York.

After a long history of changes in ownership, disaster struck in 1845 when the vase was smashed to pieces in the British Museum. Fortunately, it has since been painstakingly restored so that it can once more take its rightful place amongst the very finest masterpieces of Roman art.

The Wedgwood Museum, in Barlaston, near Stoke-on-Trent, contains a display describing the trials of replicating the vase, and several examples of the early experiments are shown.

The original Roman vase can be seen in the British Museum.

Sources:

https://www.ancient.eu/article/654/the-portland-vase/,

Wikipedia

Cristallo – Italian Clear Glass

Cristallo – Italian Clear Glass

We take clear glass or Cristallo for granted today but this fragile material was once so prized men were condemned to death for revealing its secrets.

Sparklingly clear glass is the stuff of romance. Without it there would be no coup de champagne or glittering chandeliers to dance under and no cheap sparkles for a girl to wear.

The Venetians had been making glass since Roman times but by the late 1200s, the production of glass objects of the finest quality was the city’s major industry. The Glassmakers Guild laid out rules and regulations to safeguard their secrets and in 1271 a law prohibited the importation of foreign glass or the employment of foreign glass workers. An even more radical law was passed in 1291 that laid the ground for the establishment of Murano as a premier glass-manufacturing centre. This law required that all furnaces used for glass making be moved from Venice to the island of Murano to avoid the risk of in the overpopulated city. Many historians agree that the real motive was to isolate the glassmakers to a place on where they wouldn’t be able to disclose trade secrets. A subsequent law passed in 1295 forbidding the glassmakers from leaving the city on pain of death confirms this theory.

Venetian glass reached the peak of its popularity in the 15th and 16th centuries. In the 15th century, master Angelo Barovier discovered the process for producing clear glass – (Cristallo) – that allowed Murano glass makers to become the only producers of mirrors in Europe. In addition, the popularity of Chinese porcelain among European nobility fuelled the discovery and production of the white glass mimicking porcelain (lattimo). Other types of glass making techniques became popular such as enameling and gilding glass, which originated in the Middle East, filigrana glass which is made using glass rods with inner threads of white, golden or coloured glass that are twisted or intersecting, and ice glass which appears finely crackled. Variety of shapes and colours increased, and glassware became more sophisticated though the beauty was still viewed as the simplicity of shapes and ornaments.

By the end of the 16th-century glasshouses in Bohemia, Germany, the Low Countries, and even England were employing Italian glassmakers to produce a colourless glass, an imitation of Venetian Cristallo, often called façon de Venise. However, a century later things were beginning to change. Coal was a major factor. Coal fired furnaces were developed in England and towards the end of the 17th century, the first colourless lead glass (variously called ‘flint glass’ and ‘lead crystal’) was produced. These new technologies allowed Britain to become one of the leading glass producers and the balance of power in the world of glass began to shift northwards.

This shift from Venetian Cristallo glass to northern European imitations (façon de Venise) was noted by Girolamo Alberti, the Doge of Venice’s Secretary in London in October 1672 when he complained that “With regard to Venetian trade, I find that of glass is utterly ruined since the introduction here of the manufacture of mirrors and drinking glasses, by a privilege granted to the Duke of Buckingham.”

The origin of colourless lead glass is traditionally traced back to George Ravenscroft and his 1674 patent. However, the details of what Ravenscroft actually invented are obscure. Recent research points to an Italian connection. Ravenscroft, set up a furnace in Savoy. The Savoy glasshouse was visited 29 July 1673 by Robert Hooke and Christopher Wren. Hooke records that they visited, the new glasshouse at the Savoy and “saw calcind flints as white as flower, Borax, Niter and tarter, with which he made his glasse he denyd to use arsenick he shewd pretty representations of Agates by glass &c.”
It is more likely that Ravenscroft was a financial backer and that an Italian glassmaker called Da Costa was the actual inventor of the glass that was patented. John Baptista Da Costa was one of two glassmakers from Altare, the other was John Odaccio Formica, who worked together in Nijmegen between 1665 and c.1672. Both were later associated with lead glass industries: Da Costa in London and Odaccio in Dublin.

On the 8th March of 1674, George Ravenscroft petitioned the crown for a patent to produce glass as it was still legally in the hands of the Duke of Buckingham. Ravenscroft claimed to have ‘attained to the art and manufacture of a particular sort of Cristaline Glasses resembling Rock Cristall, not formerly exercised or put into use’. The patent was for drinking glasses and specifically excludes mirrors as well as, other sorts of glasse of ancient fabrick, at present and for many years practiced or any other sort of glasse that shall be made by others. The King approved the application on the 19th March and the patent was formally issued on the 16th May 1674 for a period of seven years. That year Ravenscroft entered into an exclusive agreement with the Company of London Glass Sellers to provide them with his new glassware.

The new process had its teething problems, namely crizzling, where the glass became flaky and lost transparency. The problem it seems was solved by adding more lead to the mixture. By the 1680s glass, manufacture had spread outside London to Bristol and Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Archaeological evidence from the glasshouse at Silkstone, South Yorkshire shows the production of lead glass during the 1680s using coal.

The Glass Sellers sought to ban imports of so-called ‘country’ glasses into London during the 1680s. They argued that the ‘country’ glasses were of inferior quality and that the London consumer needed to be protected. It is perhaps more likely that those most in need of protection were the members of the Company of Glass Sellers!

 

Sources:
Investigation of Late 17th Century Crystal Glass, D Dungworth and C Brain, Centre for Archaeology Report 21/2005
https://www.glassofvenice.com/murano_glass_history.php

 

 

 

 

Julia Herdman writes historical fiction that puts women to the fore. Her latest book Sinclair, Tales of Tooley Street Vol. 1. is  Available on Amazon – Paperback £10.99 Kindle £2.42  Also available on:

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The History of the Love Letter

The History of the Love Letter

There would be no love letters without pens, ink and that luscious bright-red blob of sealing wax the heroine of the story cracks open at her dressing table. A good goose quill was the love letter writer’s standard kit until the invention of the metal dip nib pen in the 1820s. These quills glided beautifully over the soft handmade paper made from rags allowing the writer to let their feelings and emotions flow from heart to paper. According to the People’s Magazine: An Illustrated Miscellany for Family Reading, 1867, quills were usually about 10 inches long and a mature goose could provide about 20 feathers a year from which pens could be made. Many of the feathers were however imported from Russia as British geese could not meet the demand. At the height of the trade some 6,000,000 quills a year were being manufactured in Britain with a man able to make up to 800 a day.

The ink people used to write their love letters varied, some made their own using old recipes, some simply mixed a little water and soot while others bought expensive India Ink made from a type of fine soot, known as lampblack. India ink was sold in bottles and was a mainstay of writers for much of the previous two centuries.

Seals have been used for security on love letters since the time of the Ancient Egyptians; the Ancient Egyptians made theirs of mud and rolled them with an engraved stone with the pharaoh’s name on it. The Romans made beautiful intaglios, craved stones often set in rings with the owner’s unique symbol.

By the Middle Ages, seals were appearing on legal documents. Perhaps the most famous seals were the papal bulls or ‘bulla’ which carried the metal seal (bulla), which was usually made of lead, but on very solemn occasions was made of gold. In the 18th century, the lead bulla was replaced with a red ink stamp of Saints Peter and Paul with the reigning Pope’s name encircling the picture, although missives of historic importance, e.g. the bull of Pope John XXIII convoking the Second Vatican Council, are still sealed with the traditional lead seal.

Ordinary folk however used wax. In the Middle Ages, the make-up of the sealing wax was typically beeswax and ‘Venice turpentine’, a greenish-yellow resinous extracted from Larch trees. The brilliant red colour comes from the addition of expensive vermilion made from the mineral cinnabar. From the 16th century onwards, other ingredients were added such as shellac to give the wax a glossy shine. By the mid-nineteenth century, a variety of colours was available including gold. This golden colour was achieved by the addition of the mineral mica. The use of sealing wax diminished with the introduction of the gummed envelope but that took much longer than you might think.

By the early years of Queen Victoria’s reign, the Mulready envelope had appeared in England, it was a prepaid postal wrapper and forerunner of the modern envelope. Edwin Hill and Warren De La Rue were granted the first British patent for an envelope-making machine in 1845. These envelopes were not what we think of as an envelope today. They were made from a lozenge (or rhombus)-shaped sheet of paper, three edges were pasted together but there was no gummed opening, sealing wax was still required to close it. The envelope we know today did not appear until nearly 50 years later.

And now even the envelope has largely disappeared.

Who writes love letters to today I wonder?

Where is the romance in a text or email?

Julia Herdman writes historical fiction that puts women to the fore. Her latest book Sinclair, Tales of Tooley Street Vol. 1. is  Available on Amazon – Paperback £10.99 Kindle £2.42  Also available on:

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75 Years of Spam

75 Years of Spam

The History of Food in Cans

SPAM is celebrating its 75th birthday today. Love it or hate it we’ve all had it at some time in our lives and it would not have happened without Nicholas Appert an 18th-century confectioner and chef from Paris.

In 1795, Nicholas Appert began experimenting with ways to preserve foodstuffs, succeeding with soups, vegetables, juices, dairy products, jellies, jams, and syrups. He placed the food in glass jars, not cans and sealed them with cork and sealing wax. The food was preserved by boiling the sealed bottles in boiling water.

In 1795 the French military offered a cash prize of 12,000 francs for a new method to preserve food. After some 14 or 15 years of experiment, Appert submitted his invention and won the prize in January 1810 on condition that he made the method public. The same year, Appert published L’Art de conserver les substances animales et végétales (or The Art of Preserving Animal and Vegetable Substances). This was the first cookbook of its kind on modern food preservation methods.

La Maison Appert, in the town of Massy, near Paris, became the first food bottling factory in the world. This was years before Louis Pasteur proved that heat killed bacteria. In honour of Appert, canning is sometimes called “appertisation.” Appert’s method was so simple and workable that it quickly conquered the world. The French public and press were loud in their praises – “Appert has found a way to fix the seasons” said one paper. The French Navy was quick to use his method, but it was in England that Appert’s idea was fully exploited and improved.

English Canned Foods

In 1810, British inventor and merchant Peter Durand patented his own method, but this time in a tin can, so creating the modern-day process of canning foods. Tin was already used as a non-corrosive coating on steel and iron, especially for household utensils, but Durand’s patent is the first documented evidence of food being heated and sterilised within a sealed tin container. His method was to place the food in the container, seal it, place in cold water and gradually bring to the boil, open the lid slightly and then seal it again. In some quarters, he is hailed as the “inventor” of the tin can, but a closer look at the patent, held at the National Archives in London, reveals that it was “an invention communicated to him”. Norman Cowell, a retired lecturer at the department of food science and technology at Reading University, had shown that another Frenchman hitherto uncredited by history, an inventor called Philippe de Girard, came to London and used Durand as an agent to patent his own idea. It seems Girard had been making regular visits to the Royal Society to test his canned foods on its members. Girard was forced to come to London because of French red tape, says Cowell, and he couldn’t have taken out the patent in England at a time when the two countries were at war so he sold his idea to Durand for £1000 and disappeared from history. In England, there was an entrepreneurial spirit and venture capital to kick-start enterprise. People were prepared to take a risk on new ideas whereas in France if someone had a good idea they took it to the Academie Francaise and if the members of the Academie thought it was a good idea they might offer a ‘pourboire’ a small amount of money to develop it.

In 1812 Englishmen Bryan Donkin and John Hall purchased both patents and began producing preserves. Between 1814 and 1821, the Admiralty’s orders for canned foods increased from around 3000 pounds to 9000. Donkin’s role in changing history is rarely acknowledged. Standing on the spot of Donkin’s factory today is a school car park on Southwark Park Road, there is little evidence of the industry which, 200 years ago, was about to spread around the globe.

American Canned Foods

Canning arrived in the US in the 1820 but was not common until the beginning of the 20th century, partly because a hammer and chisel were needed to open the cans until the invention of a can opener by an Englishman named Yates in 1855. Canned food changed the world; it improved the nutrition of the masses, feed armies and explorers, transformed the work of women in the kitchen; Andy Warhol even made cans into art. Today, households in Europe and the US alone get through 40 billion cans of food a year, according to the Can Manufacturers Institute in Washington DC.

Of course, America is the home of SPAM. SPAM) is a brand of canned cooked meat made by Hormel Foods Corporation. It was first introduced in 1937 and gained popularity worldwide after its use during World War II. By 2003, Spam was sold in 41 countries on six continents and trademarked in over 100 countries (not including the Middle East and North Africa).

According to its label, Spam’s basic ingredients are pork, with ham meat added, salt, water, modified potato starch as a binder, sugar, and sodium nitrite as a preservative. Natural gelatin is formed during cooking in its tins on the production line. Many have raised concerns over Spam’s nutritional attributes, in large part due to its high content of fat, sodium, and preservatives.

By the early 1970s the name “Spam” became a genericized trademark, used to describe any canned meat product containing pork, such as pork luncheon meat. With expansion in communications technology, it became the subject of urban legends about mystery meat and other appearances in pop culture. Most notable was a Monty Python sketch which led to its name being borrowed for unsolicited electronic messages, especially spam email

Since 1942, each year the Chicago Section of the Institute of Food Technologists awards the Nicholas Appert Award, recognising lifetime achievement in food technology. In 1991, a monumental statue of Appert, a work in bronze was erected in Châlons-en-Champagne.

Sources: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-21689069, Wikipedia

Julia Herdman writes historical fiction that puts women to the fore. Her latest book Sinclair, Tales of Tooley Street Vol. 1. is  Available on Amazon – Paperback £10.99 Kindle £2.42  Also available on:

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History of 18th Century Crazes

History of 18th Century Crazes

The craze for porcelain was not orchestrated – it was a by-product of another craze; the craze for drinking tea and to a lesser extent coffee. As tea drinking really took hold the East India Company’s imports rocketed. By 1750 around four million pounds of tea were being imported to Britain and the porcelain was used to pack around the tea chests as it added ballast to ships without tainting the flavour of the precious cargoes. Over half a million pieces were brought to London in 1713 and soon this affordable tableware, plain white or blue and white was an essentially middle-class item.

From the first journeys east in the 1600s the elites of Europe had indulged their passion for porcelain and tea. Queen Mary of Orange was an avid collector and spread the fashion when she came to Britain with her husband William in 1688, the Swedish architect Nicodemus Tessin described the Princess’s country estate of Honselaersdyck (not far from the Hague), as “very richly furnished with Chinese work and pictures”. An inventory of her apartment at Kensington Palace in 1697 listed 7,800 porcelain items – figures, jars, porcelain dishes, plates, and cups.

The royal craze soon spread through the upper echelons of English society as can be seen in the inventories of the Antonie family at their estate at Colworth House in Bedfordshire. An inventory drawn up for a sale following the death of Marc Antonie in 1720 lists “cheany & Teatable” in the North Parlour, advertised for £ 6 14s, and in the Hall “10 little Cheany plates that sold for £ 1 5s, 6 large Cheany Dishes £ 1 15s, 4 Cheany Basons, Cheany mugs and Delf Dishes, Cheany Cassters and Cheany”.

Taste in the High Life

Contrary to the popular literature of the day that the passion for porcelain was almost entirely female men collected it too. Indeed William Hogarth’s satirical painting ‘Taste in High Life’, shows amongst many other things considered fashionable at the time a couple fawning over a china cup and saucer.

These exotic treasures from the east brought their owners connection with the wider world, a world most of them would never see, and probably gave them the thrill of owning and using something that had been bought so unimaginably far away.

In William Burnaby’s The Ladies’ Visiting Day dated 1701, the female character Lady Lovetoy laments over the impossibility of travel to the East for women and the purchase of exotic goods is presented as a replacement for the voyages she could not make, unlike one supposes the men she might have might have known:

Fulvia: I wonder your Ladyship, that has such a Passion for those Parts of the World, never had the Curiosity to see ‘em.
Lady Lovetoy: Alas! The Men have usurp’d all the Pleasures of Life, and made it not so decent for our Sex to Travel; but I manage it as Mahomet wou’d ha’ done his Mountain […] Every Morning the pretty Things of all these Countries are brought me, and I’m in love with every Thing I see.”

Between 1660 and 1689, tea sold in coffee houses was taxed in liquid form. Unbelievably, all the tea for the day would be brewed in the morning, taxed by a visiting excise officer, and then kept in barrels and reheated as necessary throughout the day, which is a truly horrific thought for a tea drinker today. The quality of the drink improved after 1689, when it was taxed in leaf form rather than as a liquid and people started to brew it at home.

Smuggling tea became an unofficial industry along the south coast of England with a brisk trade in illegal tea from English merchants based in France until 1785 when the government (under pressure from London tea merchants whose profits were being seriously undermined) slashed the duty making it not only cheaper for customers but also wiping out the illegal trade overnight.

The Strode Family

So while men tended to haunt the coffee houses, smoking, reading the newspapers and doing business their female relatives were at home brewing and drinking tea. All the equipment would be set up by the servants, and then the tea would be brewed by the hostess (aided by a servant on hand to bring hot water) and then served by her to her guests in dainty cups. Both green and black teas were popular, and sugar was frequently added but not milk.

William Hogarth’s painting, ‘The Strode Family’ depicts the wealthy city magnate William Strode seated at the tea table with his aristocratic wife Lady Anne Cecil, inviting Reverend Arthur Smith to quit his solitary reading to join the conversation over tea while the empty seat awaits Colonel Strode to complete the party. The effect of the tea table with its combination of tea and porcelain was to bring about a mini social revolution in Britain.

This afternoon break with refreshments was considered a good thing for the rich and middle classes but some commentators of the day set themselves against it for the lower orders as it would lower their productivity. Despite their protestations not only was teatime invented so was the workers tea-break!

Workers at the British Oil Cake Company, Manchester WW1.

I think it’s time for a cuppa after all this writing!

history, history, history, history, history, history, history, history, history, history

 

The Chelsea Flower Show Old and New

The Chelsea Flower Show Old and New

The annual RHS Chelsea Flower Show opened today – 22nd May 2017 with a visit from HM Queen Elizabeth and in the evening with its traditional charity preview. The RHS patron, HM the Queen, is the guest of honour at each show. The show is so popular tickets are restricted to four per person and are already sold out. Tickets for the Gala dinner start at £700 per head for; champagne, canapés and live music followed by a three-course meal.

Chelsea is probably the world’s most famous horticultural shows and is the place to see cutting-edge garden design, find new plants and new ideas to enhance your garden. The show is held in the grounds of Royal Hospital Chelsea which was once the site of the famous 18th century Ranelagh Gardens.

Ranelagh was one of the great melting pots of 18th century society. Entry cost two shillings and sixpence, compared to a shilling at Vauxhall and Horace Walpole wrote soon after the gardens opened, “It has totally beat Vauxhall… You can’t set your foot without treading on a Prince, or Duke of Cumberland.” Novelist Fanny Burney described how the nightly illuminations and magic lanterns ‘made me almost think I was in some enchanted castle or fairy palace’. Originally designed to appeal to wealthier tastes, pleasure gardens soon became the haunt of the rich and poor alike.

When it first opened in 1746, Ranelagh boasted acres of formal gardens with long sweeping avenues, down which pedestrians strolled together on balmy summer evenings. Other visitors came to admire the Chinese Pavillion or watch the fountain of mirrors and attend musical concerts held in the great 200-foot wide Rotunda, the gardens’ main attraction where Mozart performed as a child. Yet the novelty soon waned. In June of that year Catherine Talbot wrote to a friend that “…it is quite vexatious at present to see all the pomp and splendour of a Roman amphitheatre devoted to no better use than a twelvepenny entertainment of cold ham and chicken.” And Ranelagh soon lost out to the cheaper and more exciting Vauxhall Gardens. It probably didn’t help that the Rotunda proved to have dreadful acoustics, there was no drinking or gambling allowed and the grounds were too well lit for assignations. However, Ranelagh remained open for sixty years weathering the storms and frosts of the 1780s, London riots and the French wars until 1803.

The RHS Chelsea Flower Show is organised by the Royal Horticultural Society which was founded in 1804. The Chelsea Flower Show started over 100 years ago it was just a few tents and was nothing like the spectacle it is today. The Royal Hospital is proud of its links with the Royal Horticultural Society. Today the show is a highlight of the social calendar for the English elites and the Great Pavilion is one of main attractions covering roughly 11,775 square metres or 2.90 acres, enough room to park 500 London buses.

One of the RHS’s campaigns they will be promoting at the show this year is ‘Greening Grey Britain.’ Watch this wonderful transformation.

Julia Herdman writes historical fiction that puts women to the fore. Her latest book Sinclair, Tales of Tooley Street Vol. 1. is  Available on Amazon – Paperback and Kindle. Also available on:

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