The Wedgwood Portland Vase History And Meaning

The Wedgwood Portland vase has become a hallmark of the Wedgwood company and its roots trace back to the begining of time.

The Portland vase is actually a copy of a Roman 1st. century 20-30 B.C cameo glass vase that was created in deep purple , almost black glass with white overtone carvings.It has been an inspiration to glass and porcelain makers since its discovery in 1582 in the burial vault of Emperor Alexander Severus in Rome. It eventually ended up in the hands of the British Ambassador to Naples, Sir William Hamilton and was sold to Margaret Cavendish Harley, Duchess of Portland, thus giving its name “The Portland Vase”. It was then passed to the son of the Duchess in 1786 when he lent it to Josiah Wedgwood to study and replicate. Before Josiah Wedgwood replicated the vase it was a source of inspiration to several glass makers. A one thousand pound price was once put for anyone who could replicate the vase and it took one glass maker three years to replicate the vase and he collected the prize. The glass replica is now housed in The Corning glass museum in New York.

To secure the safety of the vase, the original was housed in the Victoria-Albert museum in London but the vase met a fateful demise when on Febuary 7,1845 when a drunk museum visitor knocked a sculpture upon the glass vase and shattered it into over 100 pieces.The vase has since been through a series a restorations and a quest to find all the pieces and the most recent restoration took place in 1987. The Portland Vase is even mentioned in popular culture by Arthur C. Clarke famous science fiction author of ” All The Time In The World” in which the vase is said to have been rescued by time travellers just before the destruction of the earth.

Now we come to the meaning and imagery upon the vase. The story is unclear and even controversial. It has even been argued that the images on the vase do not fit into any story of Roman mythology and that the vase is actually a 16th century creation.

In the first picture we have a man outstretching his hand to a reclining woman holding a snake. The man is said to be Mark Antony and the woman is Cleopatra. However, this is where the meaning gets controversial and we have Cupid staring at Mark Antony as he stares past Cleopatra into the eyes of his mythical ancestor Anton. In the second scene we have a woman lying in anguish , rubbing her hands through her hair while a man looks on and an upright sitting woman holding a staff looks on as well. The woman in the middle is Octavia Minor lying in anguish after being abandoned by Mark Antony; her brother Augustus looks on while Venus Genetrix , goddess of love looks on holding her staff as a symbol of protection.A more favored interpretation of the vase is said to depict the marriage of Paleus and Thetis and that the vase is actually a wedding scene which would be more romantic and fitting for the time.In the days of Rome it was believed that people could be living deities and certain people were revered as gods and goddesses.

This vase is marked “Wedgwood England” with an unrecognizable date mark but it is probably circa 1850 that this particular vase was made.

Wedgwood is fun to collect for the beautiful images on the pieces and the array of colors it comes in. The chronolgy of date marks and identifying marks can be fun and challenging aswell. It also gives us insight into Roman Mythology which can be perplexing (to say the least) at times but remains a common theme on wedgwood-jasperware pieces amongst other flowers,shells and acanthus’designs.

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  1. I have a new theory. The figures are as follows:
    1. Gauis Octavius, father of the future Caesar Augustus
    2. Cupid denoting the love between the two figures
    3. Atia Balbona Caesonia, (daughter of Julia Ceasaris, sister of Emperor Julius Caesar,mother of the future Caesar Augustus, who dreamt that the God,
    4. Apollo, sent a “ketos”, or sea serpent to impregnate her
    ( it is not a snake as it has ears!)
    5. Is Gaius Julius Thurinius Octavius, about to become Ceasar “Augustus”, seated, powerful, the key figure on the vase, eyes locked with
    7. Livia, his third wife, mother of the future Tiberius Ceasar, whom Augustus he met and married within eight weeks, arranging for her then husband to divorce her quickly.
    6. This is Scribonia, his second wife who lasted under a year, and has a turned down flame and broken stone blocks symbolising failure of the marriage.

    It was commissioned as a pices of spin to allow Ceasar to promulgate the fable of his mother’s impregantion by Apollo (his favourite deity!), thus giving him divine biological descent!
    I have a ten page dissertation to propound that the vase was made between 33 and 30BC to meet Caesar Augustus’ political ambitions. The engraver is believed to have been a Greek craftsman called Dioskourides who is known to have engraved both Julius Caesar and Caesar Augustus in stone or as a cameo in marble.
    If this theory is true, it explains why the vase was found in am Emperor’s grave, and makes the vase fantastically important in the devlopment of Roman history.
    Let us not forget Caesar Augutus (who ruled as princeps then Emperor at the time of Jesus Christ!)was the most famous of all the emperors and created a “pax romana”, a time of peace when Rome flourished as a great civilisation in relative peace, that lasted over two hundred years!