Portland stoned – An Irishman’s Diary about the Dubliner who broke one of the world’s most famous vases

The Portland Vase (detail)

The Portland Vase (detail)

 

On this date in 1845, a young Dubliner – who later confessed to have been drinking for a week beforehand – visited the British Museum in London and committed an act of vandalism that should have earned him permanent infamy.

This would have been an ironic turn of events because, until his moment of madness, he had been living under an assumed name in England, as William Lloyd, having left unspecified “family troubles” behind him in Ireland, where where he was a student at Trinity College.

Prior to his drinking binge, he must have been trying to keep a low profile. Then he went to the museum on February 7th, a Friday, and smashed the Portland Vase, a masterpiece of ancient Roman glass that had until then survived intact for two millennia.

Breaking it wasn’t as easy as it sounds. The vase was itself under thick glass, in a case.  

Unfortunately, this being the British Museum, there was a large lump of basalt nearby, part of a monument from the ruins of Persepolis.

So having first waited for the overseeing attendant to leave the room, the pseudonymous Lloyd launched the basalt sculpture at the case, shattering the priceless vase into about 200 pieces.

The museum’s investigators later established that the culprit’s real name was Mulcahy and that his family was in poor circumstances.  

Beyond that, posterity seems to have allowed him slip back into the shadows, because very little else about the man is now known.

An art lover of the period, writing in the London Times, demanded 'severe public flagellation' for the miscreant

In the short term he benefited from a good lawyer, who pointed out that the law he was charged under, for “wilful damage”, applied only to objects worth a maximum £5. He was therefore convicted for destroying the case, not the vase.

Then an unnamed benefactor bought him out of a two-month jail sentence he had been given in lieu of the fine he couldn’t pay.

An art lover of the period, writing in the London Times, demanded “severe public flagellation” for the miscreant.

But the vase’s owner (it was still on loan to the museum then), the Duke of Portland, was more charitable. He didn’t pursue a civil action against the guilty party, not wanting the man’s family to suffer for his folly.

More than a century later, in 1954, an unnamed writer of this newspaper’s London Letter revisited the incident after a conversation in a Wedgwood shop in Picadilly.  

The keeper of the shop was Wolf Mankowitz, later to be a well-known playwright and screenwriter.  

But he was then an expert on Josiah Wedgwood, the potter, who had once borrowed the Portland and made 40 copies.  

Through that link, Mankowitz knew a bit about the man who broke the vase: that he had been a “scenic painter” and that his brother was “a lecturer, probably in mathematics, in Trinity College”.

If anyone could tell Mankowitz where or how the museum vandal had ended up, the London Letter added, he would be “overjoyed” to hear. Alas, if there was any response to this, it did not feature in subsequent dispatches.

The job of restoring the vase, meanwhile, had been a challenge similar to the reconstruction of Humpty Dumpty.

Among subsequent visitors to Rome were the original Vandals, a Germanic tribe that sacked the city over 14 days in 455, damaging many works of art

A first attempt, in 1845, was good enough to make the name of the craftsman who did it, John Doubleday.

Even so, he had 37 small pieces left over.

These were then stored carefully in a box, but later devolved into the ownership of somebody who coudn’t remember what they were.

They and the vase were later reunited, and a second restoration was attempted in 1948, adding some of the misfit fragments.

But a third, and so far final, reconstruction was required in the 1980s.

As a result of that, the now 2,000-year-old artefact again looks almost as good as it must have done when first made, sometime between AD 1 and AD 25.

Who the figures etched on the vase are is still debated.  

Also mysterious is where it was kept for most of its history before resurfacing in Rome in the 16th century. One theory is that it was interred with the remains of Emperor Severus Alexander in 235.  

If so, this may have been good timing.

Among subsequent visitors to Rome were the original Vandals, a Germanic tribe that sacked the city over 14 days in 455, damaging many works of art.

In any case, the vase outlived that and many other turbulent events in the ancient world, only to be undone, or nearly, by a 19th-century Trinity student on a week-long tear in London.

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