The glass menagerie

 

A Dublin museum is displaying Europe's largest collection of glass by the Blaschkas of Dresden, writes Dick Ahlstrom

Art and science were fused into glass in the work of father and son team Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka. Together they made scientifically accurate yet strikingly beautiful models of plants, marine animals and microscopic organisms for the world's natural history museums.

Their important contribution to science and the artistic skills they employed are both celebrated next week when the Natural History Museum (NHM) and University College Dublin host the Dublin Blaschka Congress.

The congress has attracted speakers and delegates from across Europe and North America. The goal is to establish a network that will help in the conservation and display of these fragile glass reproductions, explains NHM Congress organiser, Catherine McGuinness.

It will also give the Museum and its partner, University College Dublin, an opportunity to exhibit a collection of Blaschka models that have never before been seen by the public.

"The congress is being facilitated by a programme called CoBiD (Collections-based Biology in Dublin), a project joining the School of Biological and Environmental Sciences at UCD with the Natural History Museum," says McGuinness.

Leopold Blaschka (1822-1895) and his son Rudolf (1857-1939) came from a family of glass craftsmen. The elder Blaschka began making exact replicas of a variety of flowers and plants for a patron and almost immediately demand for his expertise spread.

He was soon making glass reproductions of a wide variety of biological specimens, all providing a startling level of anatomical detail. Subjects included jellyfish, anemones, flat worms, tube worms and an assortment of snails and other molluscs.

He set up a permanent workshop in Dresden, Germany, and such was demand that his son also joined the business. They put together a catalogue and offered a selection of new fewer than 700 glass reproductions of plants and animals, as well as enlargements of single celled organisms such as amoebas.

The NHM was one of the earliest customers and initially commissioned 85 glass models, paying the then significant sum of £15. It went on to purchase 530 models from the Blaschkas.

Harvard University in Boston later gave them an enormous commission including 4,000 plant and flower models, work which outlasted the father and which ended only three years before Leopold's own death in 1939.

Dublin has Europe's largest collection of Blaschka glass and only Harvard with more than 4,000, and Cornell University in the US with 600 pieces holding more, says McGuinness.

The Congress was organised as a way to help conserve and protect these precious objects of scientific art or artistic science, she explains. "The idea behind the Congress is to begin a network of collections around the world linking curators and conservators on how to protect these models."

Some of the Dublin collection date back 150 years. "They are made from a very delicate glass that doesn't age well." Glass elements were assembled and decorated using water-based adhesives and paints.

They sometimes used a gelatine layer to dull the surface and make the models more lifelike but this layer can also trap dust, making it impossible to remove without damaging the original surface, she explains.

As a further difficulty the secrets of how the Blaschkas put together their models went with them to the grave. "Unfortunately the Blaschkas didn't record their methods. They really are a conservator's puzzle," she adds. "That is where networking needs to begin."

It is hoped that conservation techniques learned by one collection can be shared by others to protect these irreplaceable objects. The Congress will also raise awareness of the models given many were sold to private individuals whose descendants may not be aware of their present day importance and value.

The NHM has about 300 of its Blaschkas on permanent display but will open up a temporary exhibition with models that have never been viewed by the public. This opens on September 28th, the first day of the three-day Congress.

More information about the Blaschkas and the Congress is available on the web site, www.ucd.ie/blaschka/