James Tassie And The Marlborough Gem

James Tassie

James Tassie was born near Glasgow in 1735. Having started work as a stonemason, he went to Glasgow to study at an academy of the arts started by two printers, Robert and Andrew Foulis, who wanted to help young men learn about fine art. Tassie was enthused with the idea of contributing his skills to widening knowledge in the field of art.

He moved to Dublin where he worked with Henry Quin, a leading physician who was a great collector and supported artists in the city. Tassie assisted Quin to create a glass paste which could be used to produce gems and medallions. In 1766 he moved to London and established a workshop where he created copies of original engraved gems and profile medallions of superb quality.


The Tassie Gems

Gradually the beauty and artistic quality of his work became known and great collectors wanted examples of his gems and medallions. Catherine ll of Russia commissioned him for a collection of 15,000 items which took ten years to deliver. This collection is now in the Hermitage Museum. All the leading cabinets of Europe were thrown open to him for study and reproduction. He exhibited at the Royal Academy from 1769 to 1791.

In 1775 he published the first catalogue of his work showing 2856 items. A large two-volume catalogue illustrating 16,000 pieces was published in 1791.

Tassie’s medallions are the best known examples of his work. They were modelled in wax then cast in white glass paste. Portrait medallions were sometimes mounted on clear glass with a subdued coloured paper behind. Classical scenes were usually formed completely of the white paste. By the end of his life in 1799 he had produced about 20,000 pieces.

“Be mine to bless the more mechanic skill, That stamps, renews, and multiplies at will; And cheaply circulates, thro’ distant climes, The fairest relics of the purest times.”


The Marlborough Gem

The piece, illustrated to the left, which is part of my stock, was created by James Tassie probably between 1770 and 1780 and cast in the white glass paste he used. It was based on a drawing of the original cameo, known as the Marlborough Gem, made by Francesco Bartolozzi about 1765. The oval medallion is 8.5 cms by 7 cms and has been fitted in a later frame. It came from the collection of the late Dr. David Stuart. It is recorded as piece number 7199 in the Catalogue of James Tassie’s work in 1791.

Ref: 9400    Price: £695

The original cameo is carved onyx and depicts an initiation ceremony of Psyche and Eros. It is now in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts where it is known as Cameo with the Wedding of Cupid and Psyche.

It was probably made in the 1st century AD but may have been created in the 16th century. It was given by the artist Peter Paul Rubens to Thomas Howard, 21st Earl of Arundel, in the 17th century. After his death his huge collection of antiquities and gems was sold. At some point in the early 18th century it was purchased for the Marlborough collection. Drawings of the cameo have been made by various artists and, apart from the medallion produced by James Tassie, Josiah Wedgwood did similar work in porcelain.

The original Marlborough Gem, illustrated above, was sold by the 7th Duke of Marlborough, together with other gems from his collection, at Christie, Manson and Wood, in London, for £35,000 as a single lot. The collection was bought by David Bromilow of Bitteswell Hall, Leicestershire. In 1899 his daughter sold the collection at Christies. The cameo, described as

The marriage of Cupid and Psyche, made £2,000 on its own.