During the late 19th century, the Dresden studio of LEOPOLD BLASCHKA (1822-1895)and his son RUDOLF (1857-1929) produced beautifully detailed glass models of exotic plants and bizarre sea creatures for natural history museums and aquaria all over the world.
For over a century, thousands of people have peered into the cherrywood cabinets in the Botanical Museum at Harvard University to see hundreds of astonishingly life-like glass replicas of exotic flowers. Each flower was made thousands of miles away from Harvard in the German city of Dresden by the artisanal glassmaker Leopold Blaschka and his son Rudolf.
The Blaschkas not only supplied Harvard’s Botanical Museum with some 4,400 replica flowers, but over a period of 50 years they created thousands more remarkably realistic glass flowers and sea creatures for natural history museums as far afield as the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff and India.
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 offered a glimpse into those exotic worlds.
Leopold (1822-1895) and Rudolf (1857-1939) came from a long line of skilled glassmakers. Originally from Venice, where the Blaschkas had worked in the decorative glass trade, the family had moved to Northern Bohemia in what is now the Czech Republic by Leopold’s birth in 1822. Artistic as a child, Leopold was apprenticed as a goldsmith and gemcutter after school before joining the family business to make glass ornaments and glass eyes for taxidermists.
His passion was the newly fashionable field of natural history. In the late 1850s, Leopold started making glass models of the exotic flowers he found in natural history books. A local aristocrat, Prince Camille de Rohan, heard of his work and commissioned him to create 100 glass models of his orchid collection. But his labour of love only became commercially viable when a curator at the nearby Dresden Natural History Museum decided that rather than exhibiting pickled creatures in glass jars for a display of marine invertebrates (sea creatures without backbones), he would commission a dozen glass replica sea-anenomes. Exhibited at aquaria as well as the Dresden museum, the sea-anenomes were so precise in scale, colour and form, that news of Leopold’s prowess spread swiftly.
Aquaria and natural history museums were then 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.
Other replicas were inspired either by the Blaschkas’ own memories of seeing the real creatures - like the first jellyfish which Leopold remembered from a trip to North America - or 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.
Everything they made was specially commissioned. By 1888, the catalogue of their work published by Henry Ward, the Blaschkas’ US agent, listed more than 700 models including: squids, sea slugs, octopi, cuttlefish, dead men’s fingers, sea squirts and countless different types of jellyfish.
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.
When a curator of the Botanical Museum at Harvard University visited the Blaschkas in their workshop on the ouskirts of Dresden, he described it thus: “The worktables are covered with rods and tubes of glass and blocks of different coloured 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 curator watched Leopold make a flower for Harvard’s collection. So dexterous was he that it took just an hour and a half to make tubes and petals for the three flowers and another hour to add the stamens and calyx.
Harvard placed a large order for glass flowers in the late 1880s. At first, the Blaschkas continued to supply sea creatures to other museums too, but in 1890 they were persuaded to sign an exclusive contract with the Botanical Museum. Over the next 50 years, Rudolf would supply more than 4,000 glass model flowers to the Harvard museum. He worked with his father on the project for the first five years until Leopold died in 1895, then continued alone until 1936, three years before his own death.
Many of the Blaschkas’ models are still on public display, at Harvard and the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. Others have spent years in storage, like those at the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff. London’s Science Museum sold its Blaschka collection in the 1920s when the Victorian vogue for ogling glass sea creatures was no longer quite so popular.
Today, the Blaschkas seem remarkably contemporary: working as they did on the cusp of design, craft, art and industry. In early 2001, one of their 1890 painted glass Polychate Worms from Cardiff appeared on the cover of Frieze, the British art magazine. Even in their own era, Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka resisted conventional definitions and described themselves as “natural history artisans”. As for their work, it was hailed at the time as: “an artistic marvel in the field of science and a scientific marvel in the field of art.”