As I mentioned in my previous post the glass flowers I had seen at Harvard in 1976 had always held a sway in my memory ... they were dusty ... but oh so accurate and quite quite extraordinary ... and obviously created an interest factor with you via your comments.
So here’s a little more information about those glass botanical models ... leaves, branches, twigs, stamens, seeds, fruits, cross sections and flowers; sea-anemones, octopuses, squid, jellyfishes, radiolarians, amoebas and corals ...
These Czech artisans, the Blaschkas, began their careers as jewellers working in Dresden, Germany ... but the family came from a long line of skilled glassmakers – originally from Venice, where they worked in the decorative glass trade, before moving to Northern Bohemia when Leopold (1822-1895) was four.
Artistic as a child, Leopold was apprenticed first as a goldsmith and gem-cutter, before joining the family business to make glass ornaments ... and more squeamishly glass eyes for taxidermists.
He became interested in the newly fashionable field of natural history and in the late 1850s started making glass models of the exotic flowers he found in natural history books.
He was commissioned to produce glass plant (orchid) models, but on seeing those the curator at the Dresden Natural History Museum changed Leopold’s direction by ordering some glass models of sea-anemones, which would be of more scientific value than the pickled creatures available.
Leopold’s models were so precise in scale, colour and form, that news of his prowess spread swiftly. Aquaria and natural history museums were then opening all over the world ... glass sea-anemones were soon followed by snails and jellyfish, as his repertoire built ... with a major order from London’s Natural History Museum.
|See the cactus spikes ... all glass|
Rudolf (1857-1939) had joined his father working as a team from their workshop far from the newly fashionable city museums, where these works of art would be exhibited.
At a time when the public was entranced by the bizarre plants unearthed by explorers and by the splendidly surreal creatures discovered beneath the sea (since the invention of the submarine and deep sea diving kit in the mid-1800s) the Blaschkas’ models offered a rare glimpse into these exotic worlds.
The soft bodies of marine invertebrates were particularly difficult to preserve – but the glass models more than made up for this scientific challenge of the 1800s – they also detailed the colours, which were lost in the alcohol or formalin preservation process.
The Blaschkas’ skill died with them ... though they practised techniques that were common to glassworkers of the time ... but it was their incredible skill in glassworking, dedication to the study and observation of nature, then their enthusiasm for the subject matter that made them exceptional.
|A model of Leopold Blaschka at|
They practiced lampworking, a glassworking technique in which glass is melted over a flame fed by air from a foot-powered bellows. The melted glass is then shaped using tools to pinch, pull or cut and forms can be blown as well.
Coloured glass was used, as were coloured paints made from ground glass and minerals to give veracity to the models ... these were applied and then melted into the model using a lamp flame. Copper wire armatures were used within the glass stems, when necessary.
Charles Darwin observed in 1874 the digestive process and insectivorous nature of the plant Pinguicula (Butterwort) ... which to the amazement in 1997 of the botanist Donald Schnell, on visiting the glass flowers ...
... he was astonished to see a panel showing Pinguicula and a pollinating bee: “one sculpture showed a bee entering the flower and a second showed the bee exiting, lifting the stigma apron as it did so,” precisely as Schnell had hypothesized ... which the Blaschkas had faithfully executed in glass over one hundred years earlier ...
The Blaschkas described themselves as “natural history artisans” ... and today they seem remarkably contemporary: working as they did in the late 1800/early 1900s on the cusp of design, craft, art and industry.
Which now reminds me a little of the doors that were opened in Britain by the 2012 Olympics ... allowing a multitude of trades to express their wares, some seen at the Opening and Closing Ceremonies, now on show in museums and design centres around the UK and worldwide.
That mix of enterprise, trying new methodologies, combining disciplines – yet practising the art of precision, dedication and perseverance ... will always be a part of human progression.
The glass models made by the Blaschkas are able to be viewed ...
· a few marine invertebrates at the Grant Museum, see previous post
· some at the Natural History Museum, Kensington, London
· the majority of the glass flowers are at the Ware Collection, Harvard, USA
· many aquaria models are held by the Corning Museum of Glass, Steuben County, New York
Further reading can be found at Wikipedia, and at the:
Ø Design Museum – The Glass Aquarium
Ø Natural History Museum – Blaschka Glass Models
Radiolarians were also sculpted – these are amoeboid protozoa (diameter 0.1-0.2mm) that produce intricate mineral skeletons ... the Natural History Museum video shows the Blaschka model ... magnified many times – well worth a six minute watch:
The video also shows how the NHM prepared and looked at ways to preserve and repair the 185 ‘treasured specimen models’ by the Blaschkas now on show in the Treasures Cadogan Gallery – enjoy!
Grant Museum of Zoology - my previous post
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