12 October 2010


(Porpita porpita. Source.) 

I'd have given my right tentacle to see this 2008 exhibit from the Harvard Museum of Natural History, which toured at least to Minnesota, as best I can make out. Is it still out there anywhere? I can't tell.

[UPDATE: Thanks to Mary Blue Magruder of the Harvard Museum of Natural History who tells me:

The pieces are not touring, most are far too fragile. They’re off display currently, and we hope to have a place to put at least some of Harvard’s 429 models back on display in the future.]


These are the works of father and son glass artists, Leopold (1822-1895) and Rudolph (1857-1929) Blaschka, from Dresden, Germany, whose depictions of marine life are as luminous today as when commissioned by universities and museums around world in the 19th century.


Their glass sea creatures and flowers were hailed in the Blaschka's own time as "an artistic marvel in the field of science and a scientific marvel in the field of art." 

Still true.


More on their lives and work, from the Design Museum in London:
Aquaria and natural history museums were then [19th century] opening all over the world. As the techniques for preserving real plants or creatures were so rudimentary, they needed life-like replicas to exhibit and turned to Leopold Blaschka to provide them. During the 1860s, Leopold supplied glass sea-anenomes to museums, aquaria and private collectors all over Europe. He then added snails and jellyfish to his repertoire and in 1876 received a large order from London’s South Kensington Museum (now the Natural History Museum).

By then, Rudolf had joined his father in the workshop, where they worked alone without assistants. Some of their replicas were based on illustrations in natural history books, such as Philip Gosse’s 1853 A Naturalist’s Rambles on the Devonshire Coast and G. B. Sowerby’s 1857 A Popular History of the Aquarium of Marine and Fresh-Water Animals and Plants. All the early sea-anenomes, for instance, were modelled on such illustrations. 

(Illustration from British Sea-Anemones and Corals. Philip Henry Gosse. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.)


The flat art above is a an illustration by Philip Henry Gosse from A History of the British Sea-anenomes and Corals, with the Blascha's work displayed alongside it.


And here with more detail.

(Chrysaora cyclonota. Philip Henry Gosse. A Naturalist’s Rambles on the Devonshire Coast. Source.)

You can clearly see in the illustration above by naturalist-artist Philip Henry Gosse the influence he had on the Blaschkas.


More from the Design Museum:
Other replicas were inspired either by the Blaschkas’ own memories of seeing the real creatureslike the first jellyfish which Leopold remembered from a trip to North Americaor by copying preserved specimens. In later years, as the Blaschkas became wealthier, they acquired live specimens to work from. These were kept in a specially built aquarium at their Dresden home.

(Physalia physalis, the Portuguese man o' war. Source.)

Again, from the Design Museum:
Leopold and Rudolf began the process of creating their replicas by making highly detailed drawings: many of which are now archived in the Rakow Library at the Corning Museum of Glass in the US. Their techniques and equipment were fairly basic. Each exquisitely intricate model was made by fusing or gluing clear and coloured pieces of glass using a combination of glass blowing and lamp working. Tentacles and gills were attatched on fine copper wires and, where necessary, paper and wax were used too.
The Blaschkas were equally meticulous in the way their approach to decoration. The translucence of jellyfish was replicated by using finely speckled layers of pigment usually on the underside of the glass. Thicker coats of paint, sometimes mixed with powdered glass, were used to depict thicker skin or textured surfaces. Although they both worked on every apsect of their replicas, Leopold tended to prefer working with the larger pieces of glass and to concentrate on assembly; while Rudolf enjoyed the fine details of intricate work and did more of the painting and decoration. 

A curator from Harvard's Botanical Museum visited the Blaschkas and had this to say about the way they worked:
The worktables are covered with rods and tubes of glass and blocks of different colored glass and spools of wire of different sorts. The bellows under the table are of the ordinary sort used by glassworkers and the blast tube is a very simple one of glass. The lamp is made of a tin cup containing a wick, and solid paraffin which melts at a pretty low temperature is used as the fuel.
(The Blaschkas' work desk. Source.)

By 1890 the Blaschkas entered into an exclusive ten-year contract with Harvard to create glass models of flowers and plants. They never again made zoological models.

(Listing of original cost of $2.75 for a Blaschka model of the squid Onychoteuthis lichtenstein. Source.)

(Three images above, from here.)

(Five images above, from here.)

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