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The conservation history of the Portland Vase

The Portland Vase

Vandalised by a drunken visitor 

Following some slight damage in 1810, the Portland Vase was entrusted to the British Museum by its owner, the fourth Duke of Portland. Unfortunately, in 1845 an 'intemperate' vandal smashed the vase while it was on display, inflicting significant damage.

A Museum craftsman restored the vase, though he was unable to replace all of the pieces: thirty-seven small fragments were lost for the next 100 years.

When the British Museum bought the Portland Vase in 1945 from the seventh Duke, the missing fragments were found. By 1948, the previous restoration appeared aged and it was decided to restore the vase. Only three of the fragments were successfully replaced.

A new generation of conservators assessed the condition of the vase in 1987 when the vase was the focal piece of an international exhibition of Roman glass. During the intervening 30 years, the adhesive had significantly weakened: when the vase was gently tapped the joins rattled. At the conclusion of the exhibition, conservators and curators decided the Portland Vase should be stabilized. The treatment had a lot of press coverage as well as interest from scholars.

The vase was extensively photographed and drawn to record the position of fragments before dismantling, and the BBC filmed the conservation process.

Several different adhesives had been used for the previous restorations and had all failed. To find an adhesive that would last for much longer, conservation scientists at the Museum tested many adhesives for long term stability.

Finally, an epoxy resin that had shown excellent ageing properties was chosen. Reassembly of the vase was made more difficult as the edges of some fragments were found to have been filed down during previous restorations. Nevertheless, all the fragments were replaced except for a few small splinters. Any areas that were still missing were gap-filled with a blue-coloured epoxy resin or, where loss occurred to the figures, with white-coloured resin.

The newly conserved Portland Vase was returned to display and, except for light cleaning, should not require major conservation work for many years to come.