James Tassie - Scotland's Forgotten Sculptor
(Item Gallery available here)
In the 1770s there were two very talented young sculptors working for Josiah Wedgwood, designing and making wax models of classical friezes, portrait medallions and cameos.
The younger man, John Flaxman, went on to follow a distinguished conventional career producing statues and busts; by the time of his death in 1826 he was described as “the greatest of modern sculptors”.
The older man, James Tassie, followed a more commercial path, which began with the invention of a low-melting glass paste which could be cast in moulds. The original objective was to produce copies of what were then called “antique gems”, more accurately cameos and intaglios from ancient Greece and Rome which were the subject of a fashionable collecting mania at the time. However the paste could also be used to produce attractive portrait medallions in white glass from carved wax originals, and Tassie hit on the idea of producing a catalogue of “Modern Personages”, in effect the celebrities of the day. These medallions in shallow relief were modelled directly from life and were much more durable than the wax originals from which they were cast. Customers would choose from 423 portraits, ranging from the Tsar of Russia, through Robert Adam, Sir Joseph Banks, Captain Cook, Edmund Burke, David Garrick, Admiral Hood, the Astronomer Royal and David Hume to the Duke of Wellington.
Despite his commercial success at the time Tassie received little academic recognition as an artist; the 1951 Dictionary of British Sculptors, for instance, makes no mention of him but devotes 5 pages to Flaxman.
We presently have a small exhibition of Tassie’s work.
Portrait of Mrs E Thorold by Peter Rouw
When you dismantle a wax portrait miniature from its frame for cleaning
the thing you most hope to find is the original paper label identifying the sitter,
which in many cases has been carelessly discarded.
In a recent example we were doubly fortunate: not only was the label
intact it formed the rear portion of a hermetically sealed capsule, the front
portion of which was the convex glass and to which it was bonded by the
Georgian equivalent of Sellotape, called goldbeater’s skin. (This is a
proteinaceous membrane of animal origin, soaked in gum Arabic to render it
flexible and adhesive).
The label reads as follows:
“Portrait of Mrs E. Thorold. Peter Rouw, sculptor and modeller of gems
and cameos for His Royal Highness, Prince of Wales. Upper Titchfield Street,
Fitzroy Square, London 1810.”
This is one of Rouw’s finest portraits, with superb detailing of Mrs
Thorold’s dress, necklace and informally arranged hair.