A Labour in Vain – The Tragic Death of Princess Charlotte Augusta

A Labour in Vain – The Tragic Death of Princess Charlotte Augusta

Princess Charlotte Augusta

Princess Charlotte August was in labour for more than two days before she died on 6th November 1817.

Princess Charlotte Augusta of Wales (1796 – 1817) was the only child of George, Prince of Wales (later King George IV) and Caroline of Brunswick. If she had lived Charlotte would have become Queen of the United Kingdom.

Before her marriage, Charlotte was what we might call a ‘wild child’. She was a good horsewoman and a bit of a ‘tomboy.’

Charlotte’s parents loathed the sight of each other and separated soon after she was born. Her father debauched himself with every form of excess except fatherly love and attention. Her mother lived the lonely life of an abandoned woman. As an only child, Charlotte’s welfare was left in the hands of palace staff and her estranged mother whom she visited regularly at her house in Blackheath.

As Charlotte entered her teenage years, members of the Court considered her behaviour undignified. Lady de Clifford complained about her ankle-length underdrawers that showed. Lady Charlotte Bury, a lady-in-waiting to her mother Caroline described the Princess as a “fine piece of flesh and blood” who had a candid manner and rarely chose to “put on dignity”. Her father, however, was proud of her horsemanship and her tolerably good piano playing.

By the time she was age 15, the curvey Charlotte looked and dressed like a woman; she developed a liking for opera and men and soon became infatuated with her first cousin, George FitzClarence, the illegitimate son of the Duke of Clarence.

To put an end to the budding romance FitzClarence was called to Brighton to join his regiment, and Charlotte’s gaze fell on Lieutenant Charles Hesse of the Light Dragoons, reputedly the illegitimate son of Charlotte’s uncle, Prince Frederick, Duke of York and Albany.

Her mother colluded with Charlotte as far as Hesse was concerned not because she approved of the romance but to peeve her husband who did not. Caroline allowed the pair to meet in her apartments but the liaison was shortlived. Britain was at war with France and Hesse was called to duty in Spain.

Her father’s plan was to marry Charlotte to William Prince of Orange, the Dutch king. Neither her mother nor the British public wanted Charlotte to leave the country to pursue such a match.  Charlotte, therefore, informed the Prince of Orange that if they wed, her mother would have to live with them at their home in the Netherlands. This was a condition sure to be unacceptable to the Prince of Orange and their engagement was broken before it was started.

Charlotte finally settled on the dashing young Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, Leopold had a commission in the Imperial Russian Army and fought against Napoleon after French troops overran Saxe-Coburg until Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo.

The Marriage

The marriage ceremony was set for 2 May 1816. The war with France was over and the people of London were in the mood to celebrate. On the wedding day, huge crowds filled the streets and at nine o’clock in the evening in the Crimson Drawing Room at Carlton House, with Leopold dressing for the first time as a British General (the Prince Regent wore the uniform of a Field Marshal), the couple were married. Charlotte’s wedding dress cost over ₤10,000, an enormous sum of money – the average doctor earned less than £300 per year. The only mishap was during the ceremony happened when Charlotte was heard to giggle when the impoverished Leopold promised to endow her with all his worldly goods.

At the end of April 1817, Leopold informed the Prince Regent that Charlotte was pregnant and that there was every prospect of the Princess carrying the baby to term.

Charlotte’s pregnancy was the subject of the most intense public interest. Betting shops quickly set up a book on what sex the child would be. Economists calculated that the birth of a princess would raise the stock market by 2.5%; the birth of a prince would raise it 6%.

The mum to be Charlotte spent her time quietly, however, spending much time sitting for a portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence. She ate heavily and got little exercise; when her medical team began prenatal care in August 1817, they put her on a strict diet, hoping to reduce the size of the child she was carrying. The diet and occasional bleeding they subjected her to seemed to weaken Charlotte and did little to reduce her weight.

The Pregnancy

Much of Charlotte’s day to daycare was undertaken by Sir Richard Croft. Croft was not a physician, but an accoucheur, or male midwife. Male midwives were much in fashion among the well-to-do. In, ‘The Princess Charlotte of Wales: A triple obstetric tragedy’ Sir Edward Holland (J Obst & Gynaec Brit Emp 58:905-919, 1951) describes Sir Richard Croft as a diffident, sensitive man without much self-confidence despite his skill and experience. “He was not the sort of man to deviate from the rules of practice by doing something unconventional or risky. He played it by the book, but his library was small.”

Charlotte was believed to be due to deliver on 19 October, but as October ended, she had shown no signs of giving birth and drove out as usual with Leopold on Sunday 2 November. On the evening of 3 November, her contractions began. Sir Richard encouraged her to exercise, but would not let her eat: late that evening, he sent for the officials who were to witness the birth of the third in line to the throne.

A Labour in Vain

The first stage of labour lasted 26 hours, which is not uncommon for a first child. With the cervix fully dilated, Croft sent for Dr. Sims, perhaps because the uterus was acting inertly and irregularly, and also because, should a forceps delivery be necessary, Sims had been chosen consultant on that point. Sims was the “odd man out” among the four doctors; his principal work was as a botanist and editor, but he was also physician to the Surrey Dispensary and Charity for Delivering Poor Women in their Homes.

Almost certainly the outcome would have been better had the second stage of labour not lasted as long as the first. The optimal time the second stage is around two hours. Dr. Sims arrived at 2:00 am on November 5 after the second stage had been in progress for about seven hours.

Thirty-three hours after Charlotte’s labour had began Dr. Sims was ready with the forceps, but his assistance was not called for. Croft continued to let nature take its course. After 15 hours of second-stage labour, about noon on November 5, meconium-stained amniotic fluid appeared. Three hours after that, the baby’s head appeared. At nine o’clock in the evening of 5 November, Charlotte finally gave birth to a stillborn boy weighing nine pounds. Efforts to resuscitate the child proved fruitless. Onlookers commented that the dead child was a handsome boy, resembling the Royal Family.

The third stage of labour was no less distressing. Croft informed Sims that he suspected an hourglass contraction of the uterus. This happens when the placenta gets trapped in the upper part of the womb as it contracts  Croft removed the placenta manually with some difficulty, and it seemed to do the trick. Soon after midnight, Charlotte began vomiting violently and complaining of pains in her stomach. Croft returned to Charlotte’s bedside to find her cold to the touch, breathing with difficulty, and bleeding profusely. He placed hot compresses on her, the accepted treatment at the time for postpartum bleeding, but the bleeding did not stop. Charlotte died an hour and a half later.

The Aftermath

Charlotte had been Britain’s hope: George III and Queen Charlotte, had had thirteen children but only Charlotte survived. She was the sole legitimate heir to the throne of Great Britain and Ireland. Her father, with his spendthrift behaviour and penchant for womanising, was already unpopular with the public and his brothers were viewed in much the same light. The Prince of Wales’s girth and reputation for gluttony prompted his critics to dub him the “Prince of Whales.” The people were devasted by Charlotte’s tragic death.

Post-mortems on Charlotte and her stillborn son exonerated the Croft from any wrong-doing. The postmortem results showed Charlotte died because she lost too much blood, her baby because of lack of oxygen. In 1817 there were no blood transfusions for Croft to call on when Charlotte began to lose blood but he could have done things differently and she may not have died. Croft decided not to use forceps, had he Charlotte and her baby might have been saved. Croft was following fashion and the dictum of Dr. Denman an authority of midwifery and childbirth at the time. Since the death of the hugely influential Scottish obstetrician William Smellie’s in 1760, the use of forceps had fallen into disfavour because of the injuries that could be caused by the instrument when used by unskilled accoucheurs. Hundreds of unskilled or partially trained doctors were operating in Britain’s unregulated medical market at the time. The late Dr. Denman had overreacted to these injuries and had advocated a policy of “Let nature do the work. …The use of forceps ought not to be allowed from any motives of eligibility (i.e. of choice, election, or expediency). Consider the possible mistakes and lack of skill in younger practitioners.”

Denman had however hedged his position with a qualification: “Care is also to be taken that we do not, through an aversion to the use of instruments, too long delay that assistance we have the power of affording. In the last edition of his book (1816, posthumously) he wrote: “But if we compare the general good done with instruments, however cautiously used, with the evils arising from the unnecessary and improper use, we might doubt whether it would not have been happier for the world if no instrument of any kind had ever been contrived for, or recommended in the practice of midwifery.”

Croft had relied on Denman’s ultraconservative precepts, his passive obstetrics was just as dangerous as meddlesome obstetrics. The adroit accoucheur steered a middle course, but Croft was not adroit. Three months later, Croft was involved in a similar case, and, when the patient died, he shot himself with a pistol he found in the house. What happened in the wake of Princess Charlotte’s death was too much for Croft to bear.

By today’s standards, the first and second stages of Charlotte’s labour were far too long. Modern obstetricians would use forceps to extract the baby and drugs would be given to speed-up and strengthen the contractions.The most recent CEMD report indicates that in 2009-12, 357 women died during or within 6 weeks of the end of their pregnancy. This represents a decrease in the maternal mortality ratio (MMR) from 11 (2006-8) to 10.12 per 100,000 live births (2010-12), mainly due to a decrease in deaths due to direct obstetric causes. However, there has been no change in the MMR for indirect maternal deaths in the last 10 years; the current ratio (6.87 per 100,000 live births) is almost twice that of direct deaths (3.25 per 100,000 live births).

Sources:

THE YALE JOURNAL OF BIOLOGY AND MEDICINE 65 (1992), 201-210
Obstetrical Events That Shaped Western European History
WILLIAM B. OBER, M.D.
Bergen County Medical Examiners Office, Paramus, New Jersey
Received March 26, 1991

http://www.who.int/maternal_child_adolescent/epidemiology/maternal-death-surveillance/case-studies/united-kingdom/en/

 

The Man Who Transformed the Health of Londoners

The Man Who Transformed the Health of Londoners

Edwin Chadwick is the man who transformed the health of Londoners.

In a time when diseases like smallpox, cholera, and TB were insatiable in their taking of human life Edwin Chadwick used his position to persuade the government to invest in public health. Chadwick must be credited with being Britain’s premier pioneer in public health reform.

In 1834, he was appointed Secretary to the Poor Law Commissioners. Unwilling to administer an Act he was largely the author of in any way other than as he thought best, he found it hard to get along with his superiors. These disagreements contributed to the dissolution of the Poor Law Commission in 1847. Chadwick believed that public health should be the domain of the local government who he said should train and select their own experts.

While still officially working with the Poor Law Commissioners, Chadwick took up the question of London’s sanitation in conjunction with Dr. Thomas Southwood Smith. Their joint efforts produced a salutary improvement in the public health.

Chadwick’s report on The Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population (1842) was researched and published at his own expense. A supplementary report was also published in 1843. The formation of the Health of Towns Association and the creation of various city-based branches followed rapidly. These national and local movements contributed to the passing of the Public Health Act 1848.

In 1848, Chadwick was appointed Sanitation Commissioner and a new Central Board of Health. The Board of Health was created with the powers to clean the streets and improve both the water and sanitation systems. Chadwick had many ideas on how he could improve the lifestyle of the poor. His priorities were a constant supply of fresh and clean water, toilets in homes and a sewage system that would carry the sewage from the cities.

One of his innovations was the use of glazed earthenware pipes for sewage, which reduced the possibility of contamination of drinking water. He also ensured that shallow drinking wells were abolished and replaced by a mains water supply.

Chadwick’s efforts were acknowledged by at least one health reformer of the day: William James Erasmus Wilson who dedicated his 1854 book Healthy Skin to Chadwick “In admiration of his strenuous and indefatigable labors in the cause of Sanitary Reform”.

Chadwick and Florence Nightingale corresponded on methodology. He encouraged her to write up her research into the book Notes on Nursing. He promoted it among well-placed intellectuals, making her much more visible.

Thomas Robinson Leadam 1809 – 1881 MD Cleveland 1853 MRSC Eng 1853 LRCP Edin. was the descendant of John Leadam surgeon of Tooley Street who inspired my series of Tales of Tooley Street. He was a British orthodox physician who also practiced homeopathy. He was the Surgeon to St. Olave’s Union, Surgeon Accoucher the London Homeopathic Hospital, Surgeon, and Surgeon Accoucheur to the Marylebone Homeopathic Dispensary.

In 1848, Thomas Robinson Leadam was a witness called before the Metropolitan Sanitary Commissioners. Leadam was the Medical Officer and Surgeon to the Poor Law Union of St. Olave’s, Southwark, and present during the Cholera and Typhus epidemic in 1848, when he partitioned off part of a workhouse to become a Cholera Hospital.

In his report to the Commissioners on this epidemic, Leadam described his district as a very poor area with no water supply beyond a few street taps, with cesspools and open stagnant ditches such that the stench outside his house was terrible.

Leadam continued that the effluvia often floods into the houses. This local doctor’s recommended was that Parliament should instruct landlords to connect the houses of Southwark to the sewers and initiate appropriate sanitation and drainage, as well as street paving.

Volume One, Tales of Tooley Street by Julia Herdman is available on Amazon worldwide. myBook.to/TalesofTooleyStreet

Sex and the City

DEATH OF WOMEN

SEX AND DEATH

WOMEN AND MARRIAGE

RICH OR POOR A WOMAN’S FATE COULD BE THE SAME

WOMAN AT WORK

WOMAN PLYING HER TRADE

Women

and Sex

There were two ways for a girl to get on in the 18th century and they both involved sex and the risk of disease followed by the likelihood of an early death.

The choice for most women was either wife or city prostitute. Prostitution was the riskier option and the option most likely to taken by the poor – women who had been abandoned and those who were widowed.

The 18th century saw the birth of commerce and a huge expansion of trade in the great cities of the world. The goods on offer were not only tea and sugar – there was a thriving trade in sex as well.

Sex was the commodity most often traded in 18th-century cities – sex with women, sex with men, and, sex with children.

Sex and the Age of Marriage

Since the 12th century in Europe, the onset of puberty was the acceptable time for marriage. This was about  12 for girls and around 14 for boys.

 

The first recorded age-of-consent law appeared in 1275 in England in the Statute of Westminster. It made it a misdemeanor to “ravish” a “maiden within age,” with or without her consent. The phrase “within age” was later interpreted by jurist Sir Edward Coke as meaning the age of marriage.

The American colonies followed the English tradition, but the law was more of a guide –  Mary Hathaway (Virginia, 1689) was only 9 when she was married to William Williams.

In Europe, the situation was much the same.

Sex and the French Revolution

The advent of the French Revolution hardly changed at a thing for women and girls. The age of consent for sexual intercourse was set at 11 years for girls in 1791. How enlightened was that?  In the 18th-century there was little understanding of childhood as a concept. Children were seen as “little adults” who were born sinful and subject to the corruptions of the flesh.

Sex and the Job Market

Women and female children were barred by law and convention from all but the most menial jobs in Europe and in the colonies. There was no chance of a woman making a decent living on her own so many were forced to make an indecent living for themselves.

Some women inherited property from their families when there was no male heir, there are plenty of examples of female innkeepers and shop owners but most of them were widows. The problem for a woman with property was that when she got married it became her husband’s. If the marriage was not a success she could be left with nothing.

With odds stacked against women economically, the trade in sex thrived. Thousands of women needed to make a living and the only thing most men would pay for was sex or sex with housework.

The Harlot’s Progress

William Hogarth’s six-part Harlot’s Progress of 1732 makes the lot of the prostitute visible in a straightforward way. The representation of Moll  Hackabout’s journey into prostitution, from the innocent country girl we see arriving in London on the first plate through to her subsequent career as a harlot and her decline towards death in plate six, is generally acknowledged to mark a turning point both in British visual culture and in Hogarth’s career but it changed little for women like Moll.

Charlotte Hayes’ Nuns

Of course, taking control of their commercial assets was somewhat more difficult for the women, the commercial world was designed for men. However, some did. One such was a woman called Charlotte Hayes. Hayes ran a brothel or ‘nunnery’ in the parlance of the day. She grew wealthy on her girls, keeping a carriage and liveried servants for her ladies of the night. She taught her girls the manners and graces of elite London society to get a better price for them. One of these so-called ‘nuns’ was Emily Warren, an ‘exquisite beauty’ who became the muse to the painter Sir Joshua Reynolds. She was discovered by Hayes leading her blind beggar of a father through the streets of London. The Georgian memoirist William Hickey described sleeping with her as follows;

Never did I behold so perfect a beauty. I passed a night that many would have given thousands to do. I, however, that night, experienced the truth – that she was cold as ice, seemingly totally devoid of feeling. I rose convinced that she had no passion for the male sex.’

Little wonder, perhaps. Emily Warren had, like so many other girls, become a prostitute at the age of 12.

Hayes dressed her girls in French silks and lace and promised they would ‘satisfy all fantasies, caprices, and extravagances of the male visitor, carrying out their every wish’.

Masquerade parties were a popular cover for anonymous sexual encounters. Among the most sought-after of these risque gatherings were those held by one Mrs. Cornley, reputedly a lover of Casanova; they were held in a grand house or ‘fairy palace’ in Soho Square. The parties were honeypots for prostitutes and pimps and saw peers of the realm mix with streetwalkers.

Inspired by the explorer-of-the-day James Cook‘s accounts of Tahitian erotic rituals, Charlotte Hayes organised a tableau in which ’12 beautiful nymphs, unsullied and untainted’. These nymphs were to be publicly deflowered by 12 young men as in ‘the celebrated rites of Venus’. Her disreputable business earned Hayes, a teenage prostitute herself, a fortune of £20,000 – a sum a working man would have to work 500 years to earn.

 

The Harris’ List

The centre of the Georgian sex trade was Covent Garden. There, men could not pass it without being accosted by women silently offering their arm or making lewd suggestions in their direction.

In the Covent Garden coffee shops and jelly houses, where exotic concoctions were eaten from tall glasses, hundreds of lavishly adorned women sat looking for business.

The infamous Harris’ List of Covent Garden Ladies was a directory of London prostitutes, circulating from the late 1740s. It detailed each girl’s charms.  A typical entry in 1788, described Miss Lister, of 6 Union Street, Oxford Road. ‘She is painted by the masterly hand of nature, shaded by tresses of the darkest brown, with the neighbouring hills below full ripe for manual pressure, firm and elastic, and heave at every touch.’

A German visitor of the time observed prostitutes in the West End with these words. ‘Usually, a crowd of female creatures stand in front of the theatres, amongst whom may be found children of nine or ten years, the best evidence of moral depravity in London. In general, the English nation oversteps all others in immorality, and the abuses which come to light through addiction to debauchery are unbelievable.’

The dawn of the Victorian age and new attitudes to morality meant that prostitution gradually went underground but it did not go away. Streetwalking was made an imprisonable offence in the 1820s. For the whores, harlots, pimps, and courtesans of Georgian London, the party was over but their abuse was not.

 

Sources:

The Secret History Of Georgian London,  Dan Cruickshank

Prostitution and Eighteenth-Century Culture: Sex, Commerce, and Morality,  edited by Ann Lewis, Markman Ellis

Infamous Commerce: Prostitution in Eighteenth-century British Literature and Culture, Laura J. Rosenthal

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A Room of One’s Own – A History of Letter Writing

A Room of One’s Own – A History of Letter Writing

The history of letter writing is part of women’s history. Writing letters to family and friends was one of the new pastimes enjoyed by 18th-century middle-class women. Although the Post Office had been open since 1660  it was not until the 18th century that the use of letters for private correspondence took off. It was only then that middle-class women began to enjoy what had been until then an aristocratic luxury.

Should letters be personal and private, public or works of art? These were the questions being debated in the parlours of the 18th-century chattering classes.

For the 18th century household, the distinction between what was public and what was private was seldom straightforward. Controlling relatives or husbands were frequently concerned by the potential secrecy between correspondents, especially female ones. This gave rise to a general unease about the propriety of women’s letter writing.

Samuel Richardson’s fictional heroines, Pamela and Clarissa are repeatedly praised for their talents in letter-writing by their hosts. but it was an insult to a host if a lady refused to read aloud the contents of her correspondence. The contents of women’s letters were viewed by many in society as public property.

Letter writing was a place where a woman might show off her literary prowess in the same way she might demonstrate her ability on the pianoforte. But, as Richardson wrote to one of his female correspondents, Sophia Westcomb, in 1746, letter-writing was not only a social talent.

The Pen is almost the only Means a very modest and diffident Lady (who in Company will not attempt to glare) has to shew herself, and that she has a Mind. … her Closet her Paradise … there she can distinguish Her Self: By this means she can assert and vindicate her Claim to Sense and Meaning.’ (Selected Letters of Samuel Richardson)

Richardson’s sentiment was echoed and expanded by Virginia Woolf two centuries later when she wrote; ” A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” This is the central theme of her book ‘A Room of One’s Own.’ In it, Woolf asserts that unlike their male counterparts, women are routinely denied the time and the space to produce creative works. Instead, they are saddled with household duties and are financially and legally bound to their husbands. By being deprived of rooms of their own, there is little possibility for women to rectify the situation. Woolf’s assertion, even in the mid 20th century was deemed revolutionary.

An example of a woman who used her letter-writing to assert their intelligence and enter the public sphere is Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. Montagu’s Letters from Turkey, written between 1716 and 1718 and published in 1762, were influential both as models of epistolary style and as anthropological works.

Other women followed where Montagu had led. Mary Masters’ ‘Familiar Letters’ (1755) discussed women’s education and domestic abuse. Hester Chapone published her ‘Letters on the Improvement of the Mind’ in 1773. These letters and Elizabeth Carter’s to Catherine Talbot were published in 1809, were referred to by Elizabeth Gaskell in ‘Cranford.’

After being estranged from her husband, Lady Sarah Pennington wrote ‘An Unfortunate Mothers Advice to Her Absent Daughters’. This was a book in a series of letters instructing women on religion, prayer, dress, needlework, the theatre, marriage, dancing, and other “feminine” pursuits. it was published in 1761.

Pennington wrote that a good marriage is rare. “So great is the hazard, so disproportioned the chances, that I could almost wish the dangerous die was never to be thrown for any of you.”

Lady Sarah also discusses the need for a certain “cheerful compliance” when it comes to men and their disagreeable habits. The book enjoyed much popularity and ran to three print runs, the last was in 1803. ((See Vivien Jones, “Mary Wollstonecraft and the literature of advice and instruction,” in Claudia Johnson, ed., Cambridge Companion to Mary Wollstonecraft (2002), 119-40, at 124).

In one of life’s ironies, it was men not women who would excel when it came to transposing the letter into literature and commercialising it. Perhaps this was because writing for a living was considered morally suspect for women. In an ideal world, women had no reason to seek financial independence through their writing. Nevertheless several of the major female novelists of the period began with the epistolary form.

Towards the end of the eighteenth century, Fanny Burney abandoned the epistolary form after her first novel Evelina and, most famously, Jane Austen dabbled with the form in her short story ‘Lady Susan’ subsequently finding a more satisfying form in the omniscient authorial narrative.

In its private capacity, the letter allowed a woman confined to the home to communicate outside the home with both men and women. While in the form of published letters it was a valuable platform from which publicly to assert women’s intellectual capabilities. Of course, the eighteenth century did not wholeheartedly embrace the potential of such a development. Both kinds of letters aroused contemporary criticism, but it was the suspicion aroused by private, domestic letters that inspired many of the novels of the period, exploiting as they do the potential scandals and secrets and it was female novelists such as Jane Austen who created the modern novel.

This article is based on an original article by Mona: https://blue-stocking.org.uk/2011/03/01/public-and-private-real-and-fictional-the-rise-of-womens-letter-writing-in-the-eighteenth-century/

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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