Dublin Blaschka Congress
Collections-based Biology in Dublin
Text from a booklet entitled: Blaschka Models at the National Museum of Ireland
In 1878, staff at the Natural History Museum in Dublin came to hear of a glass model business run by a father and son by the name Blaschka in Dresden , Germany. The family business was already famous throughout Europe for their beautifully crafted glass models of invertebrates. It was decided to order 85 models from the Blaschkas through their agent for Great Britain and Ireland , Robert Damon of Weymouth . The cost of the purchase was £15. Over the next ten years the Natural History Museum purchased 530 models from the Blaschkas.
At the time, the glass models filled a gap in the museum’s display even today the collection would be incomplete without them. The animals purchased jellyfish, anemones, planarians (flat worms), polychaetes (tube-dwelling worms), sponges, radiolarians and assorted molluscs quickly lose their beautiful colours and shapes when preserved. The glass models however demonstrated every unique detail of the animal in a dramatic fashion, and in the case of the radiolarians allowed us to view microscopic features with the naked eye. So realistic are the creations of the Blaschkas that drawings or photographs of the models can easily be mistaken for the living animal.
The Natural History Museum holds one of the largest collections of Blaschka models in the world. All together, there are more than 400 surviving Blaschka objects in the Museum’s collections, and most of them are on display. Each object was designed individually on commission, using combinations of glass, lacquers, and pigments, and represents the height of technical and artistic skill in Victorian glass art. You can see the models all over the Museum’s galleries, where they have been placed to represent their different animal groups.
Leopold Blaschka (1822-1895) and his son Rudolf (1857-1939) came from a family of glass craftsmen who could trace their origins to 15th century Venice . The father and son manufactured natural history pieces exclusively by commission, building up a portfolio of over 700 animals in glass that they advertised in catalogues to natural history museums across Europe and North America.
The Blaschkas’ undoubted talent as craftsmen is viewed more often only in the context of the product, rather than skill and process. To zoologists and educators, the value of these works stems from the accuracy of these pieces as ‘models’, in terms of detail, colour and scale. In their own era, Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka described themselves as ‘natural history artisans’ while their work was hailed by others as ‘an artistic marvel in the field of science and a scientific marvel in the field of art.’
The Blaschka glass models are increasingly well known among researchers and curators world-wide. The scientific and historical value of these sculptures is well documented; however, the glasswork is decaying, through ageing and unsuitable storage facilities. The danger is that these amazing sculptures will decay further and never be available for scholars to investigate their artistic value. Even the simplest forms of cleaning, to remove more than 100 years’ worth of dust, is a complicated job on these delicate works of art.
Father and son:
Leopold (18221895) and Rudolph (18571939)
The Blaschka family were glassmakers for several generations before Leopold and his son Rudolph turned their hand to educational glass models. The family, originally from Venice , worked in the decorative glass trade. By the time of Leopold’s birth in 1822, the family were settled Aicha, Northern Bohemia (now Česky´ Dub in the Czech Republic ). From childhood Leopold displayed an aptitude for delicate and precise work, apprenticing both as a goldsmith and a gem cutter while still attending school. Once his education was complete, he joined the family business where he turned his skills to making ornaments, jewellery, test tubes and glass eyes (for people, and taxidermists’ animals).
Leopold had a great love of the new science of ‘natural history’ that developed in the mid 19th century. In 1857, the same year that the Natural History Museum in Dublin opened in our Merrion Street building, Leopold began to produce glass flowers for his own amusement. He studied the botanical specimens in the glasshouses on the nearby estate of Sychrov, owned by Camille, Prince de Rohan. The prince was a well known lover of plants and his estate housed a world famous botanical garden. He was impressed by the work of Leopold, probably seeing in him the same love of plants that the prince himself possessed, and commissioned him to create 100 glass models of his orchid collection. In 1862 he exhibited several pieces from Leopold’s glass flower collection in his palace in Prague .
Entering the science world
With the recommendation of the Prince de Rohan behind him, Leopold made an acquaintance with Ludwig Reichenbach, the then director of the Dresden botanical gardens and natural history museum. Reichenbach exhibited Leopold’s glass flower collection in 1863 and this lead to a commission by one of the museum’s curators to produce a dozen glass replica sea anemones, which he decided would make a much better marine invertebrate display than their pickled counterparts in glass jars. It was at this time that Leopold moved his family to Dresden and set up a permanent studio there. As a basis for his anemone designs Leopold used the colour plates from the 1860 publication Actinologia Britannica: a history of the British sea anemones and corals by Philip Henry Gosse.
You can see models of Irish anemones like the ones pictured at the rear of the Irish room, with the “Colenterates” (Cnidarians), and upstairs at the North-East corner of the top balcony.
Beginning of a partnership
After the commission from Dresden , Leopold found himself in high demand. The news of Leopold’s skill and precision in the making of the glass models spread throughout the museum world, and soon Leopold was supplying museums across the world with over 700 different types of models. However he could only take on so much work, as he worked alone with no assistants. His son Rudolf, born the same year Leopold made his first glass flowers, was given odd jobs in the studio and in 1876, when he was nineteen years old, he joined his father as a partner in the business.
With the addition of Rudolf to the studio, and the linking of the Blaschka’s name to excellence, commissions flooded into the Dresden workshop and the Blaschka’s output grew steadily. Orders from all over Europe , the United States and as far as India kept the father and son busy. Leopold and Rudolf now not only drew inspiration for their creations from plates in books, but from real life. The kept a specially constructed aquarium in their home in Dresden , ordered preserved specimens from the Naples Zoological Station and live specimens from Trieste Zoological Station and the merchant R.T. Smith in Weymouth , England . Father and son also went on field trips and read reports from scientific expeditions (such as the HMS Challenger) which contained descriptions and sometimes lithographs of newly discovered animals. Some of the original specimens of the HMS Challenger expeditions (1872-1876) are in the scientific collections of the Museum here in Dublin . The Blaschkas’ portfolio now included many exotic animals including sponges, corals, jellyfish, cuttlefish, dead men’s fingers, starfish, squid, marine polychaetes (marine worms, like the one pictured) and several species of molluscs (slugs and snails).
You can see models of land-slugs in the Irish Room; you can see models of corals upstairs on the North end of the top balcony. Look for jellyfish and other creatures upstairs and downstairs.
Back to Flowers Again
By the late 1800s the Blaschkas were world renowned for their animals models. For 15 years, father and son worked together to supply international museums and universities with models from their ever-expanding catalogue. In 1890, the pair were persuaded to sign an exclusive contract with the Harvard University Botanical Museum . The original 10-year contract included 847 life-size model plants and 3,000 enlarged flowers. Leopold worked for the first five years of the contract, until his death in 1895. Rudolf continued the work and over the next 41 years he supplied Harvard’s Botanical Museum with over 4,000 replica flowers. He finished the projects three years before his own death in 1936. The joint programme between the Natural History Museum and University College Dublin has the largest collections of animal models (almost 500 in the Museum, and an additional 120 models in UCD), but the glass flower collection in Harvard is by far the largest collection of Blaschka models in the world.
After Rudolf’s death the renown of the Blaschka glass models fell into anonymity. Advances in diving and the production of photographs and documentaries by marine zoologists like Jacques Cousteau had rendered the scientific study value of the Blaschka models in some ways obsolete. The main value of the models in many museums had been to present the beauty of animals that people could not see from a preserved specimen. Photographs, videos, and now modern wildlife documentaries mean that more people can appreciate these creatures more easily.
Blaschka Glass models art imitating life?
In the mid 1800s, well-to-do people took to the new science of natural history with great enthusiasm. But one great frustration was the difficulties in displaying animals and specimens without fur or feathers. Usually the plants and animals lost their colour and sometimes their original form in their pressed pages and glass jars. Thus there was a need for life-like replicas to use as museum exhibits and as educational tools for students to study form and function. The discovery of Leopold Blaschka’s talent for glass making and his eye for detail at this time was a fortunate one.
Authors such as Philip Henry Gosse (1810 1888) and the famous mollusc expert George Brettingham Sowerby II (1812 1884) encouraged the British aquarium craze of the mid 19th century. It was at this time that cheap plate glass became available, so an aquarium became a ‘must have’ for the fashionable Victorian drawing room. By placing oxygenator plants such as seaweed into the tank, the animals could be kept alive for longer periods of time. However the problem with the live animals in the aquaria was that they didn’t seem to want to stay still! It was difficult to study the body of an animal that kept moving. Thus even with the rise of aquaria Blaschka’s models were invaluable in studying zoology.
Two books that where used in particular by the Blaschkas where Gosse’s 1853 A Naturalist’s Rambles on the Devonshire Coast and Sowerby’s 1857 A Popular History of the Aquarium of Marine and Fresh-Water Animals and Plants. They also borrowed books from the prominent and controversial zoologist Professor Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919) of Jena University in eastern Germany , including some of Haeckel’s own publications. The printed drawings were scientifically authoritative, i.e. the accepted detail of the animal. Thus the models had to correspond with the drawings exactly, there was no room for artistic licence. The Blaschka’s attention to detail was such that some of the models include what we now know to be inaccuracies in some of the drawings!
The creation of a glass model
As mentioned earlier, the Blaschkas came from a long line of glassmakers. Leopold was taught the technique by his father, and in turn he passed it on to his son. Unfortunately when Rudolf died in 1939, he took the technique with him to the grave.
When starting a new glass piece, Leopold and Rudolf usually first made an extremely detailed drawing of the animal or plant. These sketches still exist and are archived in the Rakow Library at the Corning Museum of Glass in New York State . Once they were satisfied with their designs, they set about creating the model. Glass tubes, rods and plates from a market were moulded into the desired shape over an open flame, using tongs and tweezers. Sometimes, in order to get the desired shape, glass blowing would be part of the process as well. For the most part the glass they used was from Thuringia in Germany and from Gablonz in Bohemia . The flame itself was supplied by a cup of paraffin with a wick. The cup stood on a lampworker’s table, a workbench with bellows underneath it operated by a treadle. By using tubes to apply extra oxygen to the flame, the high temperatures needed for glass blowing and shaping could be reached.
Once the constituent parts of the model where ready, they were glued or fused together using the paraffin flame. The more delicate parts of an animal, such as tentacles and/or gills, were attached on fine copper wires and, where necessary, paper and wax were used too.
If you look carefully at models of jellyfish in the Irish Room you can see the wires supporting the long tentacles
The final step of the model’s genesis is the decoration of the animal or plant. There where several methods employed, depending on what the model was. For instance using finely speckled layers of pigment usually on the underside of the glass simulated the translucence of the bell of a jellyfish. For tougher skin or textured surfaces, thicker coats of paint (sometimes mixed with powdered glass) were used. Both father and son worked on every aspect of their models, however we are told that Leopold preferred working on the assembly of a model, while Rudolf took pleasure in the finer work and did more of the painting and decoration.
Depending on the size and detail of the piece, it might take the Blaschkas several hours to make one model. We know, for example, that each of the flowers made for the Harvard Botanical Museum took on average two to three hours. More detailed or complex models, such as the radiolarians (tiny single-celled marine organisms with silica shells) may have taken considerably longer to produce.
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