The Iowan

Stourbridge 2012 Portland Vase Project

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During our recent trip to England, my wife and I were eager to visit the Ruskin Glass Centre at Amblecote, near Stourbridge in the West Midlands. Through The Glass Association (UK), we had learned that a team effort had been started to replicate a famous piece of Roman-era cameo glass called the Portland Vase. We were interested to see what progress had been made, and we were delighted to be able to spend an enjoyable afternoon with team coordinator Ian Dury and cameo artist Terri Colledge.

Ian Dury became an apprentice glass engraver in the 1960s, and his love for Stourbridge glass is evident in his enthusiasm for this project, as well as in the beautifully engraved glass in his shop within the Ruskin Centre. Terri was a painter at Bilston Enamels, and she began to learn cameo carving more than a decade ago at the Okra Glass studio in Stourbridge.

The “original” Portland Vase from Roman times resides in the British Museum in London, and its name stems from the fact that it was purchased by the museum from the Duke of Portland. The vase depicts human figures in a Classical style, and the scenes seem to involve “love and marriage,” although many and varied interpretations have been offered by scholars who study ancient glass.

The Stourbridge 2012 Portland Vase Project team takes its inspiration from this iconic piece of glass as well as the 19th-century recreations of it by John Northwood (1836 – 1902) and Joseph Locke. The Northwood version, which now resides in the Corning Museum of Glass, was created in the 1870s, perhaps in response to a promised monetary prize of 1,000 pounds to whoever could perform the feat. Northwood’s success was celebrated throughout Great Britain, and he became art director at the legendary glassmaking firm Stevens and Williams. The Northwood name evokes much praise in the Stourbridge area yet today, and a statue of John Northwood can be found in the Merry Hill Shopping Centre in nearby Brierley Hill.

The project began in earnest in late September 2011 when glassmaker Richard Golding made what is called a “cased glass blank.” After gathering dark cobalt blue glass, Golding gathered a layer of opaque white glass over the cobalt blue. He brought the molten glass to the shape of the original Portland vase and carefully applied two handles in dark cobalt blue. A skilled glassmaker for more than three decades, Richard Golding founded Okra Glass in the late 1970s, and he now operates Station Glass in Leicestershire.

The challenge in making cased glass is a matter of chemistry and physics. Despite their differences in color, the separate batches of cobalt blue and opaque white glass must have similarities in chemical composition so that each will expand and contract at nearly the same rate when the cased object is being made. If the “coefficient of expansion” is off, all will be for naught when the item cracks or shatters completely as it gradually cools in the annealing lehr.

Golding’s work was a success, and the next phase of the project was completed when engravers Steve Piper and Ian Dury completed their cutting work on the handles and base of the blank. Then, cameo artist Terri Colledge took on the task of sandblasting to reduce the thickness of the opaque white glass layer. Assisted by Ian Dury and Helen Knight, Terri’s effort took more than four hours.

Ann Palmer and Terri then worked with images of the figures from the original Portland Vase to create scaled versions to fit the blank. Vinyl masks are required for this step, and the resulting silhouettes give one the first sense of the entire layout of the scenes.

When we saw Terri’s work in early May, she estimated that her recreation of the Portland Vase was then about 40 percent complete. Terri uses dental drills to carve the opaque white glass, and the process is both arduous and time consuming. Great care is paramount, of course, as even the slightest slip could ruin a key detail. 

The completed Portland Vase will be unveiled during the 2012 British Glass Biennale and the International Festival of Glass in August. During these events, glass scholars Paul Roberts, Charles Hajdamach, and David Whitehouse will speak on various aspects of all the Portland vases, and the work of the Stourbridge 2012 Portland Vase Project team will be there for all to admire. There’s still time to book a trip to Stourbridge to see it all! 

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