George Stimpson

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What is the Portland vase?

The Portland vase is a rare and beautiful burial urn found about 1560 in a marble sarcophagus under the Monte del Grano near Rome. It is believed to have been the work of a Greek artist in Rome and to have contained the ashes of the Roman emperor Alexander Severus, who died in 235 A.D. The urn was kept for more than two centuries in the Barbering Palace in Rome and is sometimes known as the Barbering vase. In 1770 an antiquarian named Byers bought it from the Barbering family and resold it to Sir William Hamilton for 1,000 guineas. Sixteen years later the Duchess of Portland paid 1,800 guineas for it at a public art auction in London. In 1810 the Duke of Portland, a trustee of the British Museum, lent it to that institution for exhibition but retained the family title to it. The urn, which has two handles, is nearly ten inches high and slightly over seven inches in diameter at the broadest part. It was made by covering molten transparent dark blue glass with opaque white glass cut in cameo style. The scenes contain Greek mythological figures believed to portray the story of the marriage of Thetis and Peleus. In 1845 a mad mechanic named William Lloyd maliciously smashed the priceless urn into a hundred pieces with a Babylonian brick that he picked up in the museum. He was tried, but the offense was not punishable under the law [page 43] because the vase was not the property of the trustees. Lloyd got off with a three-pound fine for destroying a glass shade covering the vase that belonged to the museum. Parliament immediately made such offense punishable with two years' imprisonment. An expert joined the prices so skillfully that the damage is scarcely visible. Since then the Portland vase has not been exhibited to the general public and has been guarded day and night by guards specially paid for that purpose. Rare and beautiful copies have been made by Josiah Wedge­wood, John Northwood and other artists. In 1946 title to the Portland vase was acquired by the British Museum as the result of a bequest.