Down in London for a meeting on Friday, and with some time to kill afterwards, I’d arranged to meet up with an old chum who’s now at the British Museum, pursuing his passion for Roman objects. We were at school together in another life and hadn’t seen each other for about twenty years, when we met again for the first time earlier in the year. One of the things about meeting old friends is how little they have apparently changed over the years, but this time we were talking about childhood and youth and I was suggesting that they were experiences of another person whom I once knew, rather than being an integral part of the person I now am, who seems formed of more recent experience than childhood enterprises and disasters. Anyway, before we had to part, I asked him to take me down to the galleries and show me one object through his eyes as a curator, rather than simply mine as a historical tyro. He took me to the Portland Vase.
The vase, for those who’ve never seen it or know of it, is an astonishing piece of Roman glassware made just about two thousand years ago and which survived almost intact (with an ancient modification) until the middle of the 19C when it was damaged by a visitor to the museum, to who’s care it had been entrusted.
The vase was made by blowing the form in two layers of glass, blue inside white, and then the white glass was eroded by a craftsman either to remove it entirely, exposing the blue ground, or reducing the white glass to different thicknesses to create the relief form of the cameo. Now this is the astonishing part of it as an object, that such commitment, effort and care goes into a process which also results in such a work of beauty, for the vase is beautiful as well as technically fantastic. The scenes depicted (of the wedding of the parents of Achilles) are crafted with tenderness and translucent forms of people, plants and architectural forms emerge organically and with precision from the blue glass behind.
Yes, I’d seen this object before, but never from the perspective of a man who, frankly, loved it and delighted in it. This was a privileged insight into the distant past and has left in me a little bit of awe that I’d forgotten how to hold for ancient and precious things of beauty, after all, no-one can make another one.