History of Tassie

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General History of Tassie  back to Tassie Marchant & Brown

James Tassie was a Scottish stonemason turned artist/entrepreneur who found fame and fortune amidst the Classical Revival by creating an excellent series of casts of antiques, gems, cameos and intaglios in coloured paste, enamel and sulphur.

Born in Pollokshaws, a suburb of Glasgow, in 1735. Tassie studied sculpture and modelling at the Academy of Fine Arts that had been established within the University of Glasgow by the printers Robert and Andrew Foulis. In 1763 Tassie moved to Dublin where he worked with Dr Henry Quinn, eKingis Professor of Physici, together they invented a white vitreous paste (essentially a lead potash glass), which Tassie used to make the medallions that made him famous. He modelled various subjects including portrait busts, worked as a modeller for Wedgwood and copied some 15,000 antique classical carved gems and cameos using originals borrowed from the great private collections. Tassie made one set for Catherine the great. Josiah Wedgwood bought copies of many of Tassie's cameos to use as the basis for his own designs, often used as ‘sprigged’ decoration on Jasper wares.

Tassie's and Wedgwood however eventually became business rivals and eventually started defaming each other’s productions. Wedgwood praised Tassie’s skill whilst also noting that his own seals were of a much higher quality, to which Tassie retorted that his were better as his glass paste did not suffer the distortion of shrinkage that affected Wedgwood’s designs.

The ‘Adam taste’ marketplace would prove big enough for both men, and for many years well to do collectors filled collectors cabinets full of pottery and paste cameos and intaglios. The portrait medallions of eminent contemporaries, modelled from life, for which James Tassie is best known, were usually oval, either in the ‘antique manner’ with the subject wearing classical drapery, or in contemporary costume, showing the garments in great detail. James Tassie died in 1799 and was buried in Southwark. However the demand for such items continued well into the 1840’s, the business being continued by Tassie’s nephew, William. 

Tassie issued several catalogues, the definitive edition being prepared by Rudolphe Raspe. Raspe was the author of several works on geology and an antiquarian who had been keeper of the Landgrave of Hesse’s rich collection of antique gems and medals. Charged with removing certain valuable coins from the collection, he fled to England where James Tassie hired him in 1785 to prepare the catalogue, which not only include a complete listing of Tassie’s reproductions, but also includes information on the history and style of engraved gems, the myths behind them, and other topics. 

PRODUCTION  

Tassie’s methods have been closely studied in recent years. Tassie himself initially modelled the subject in wax from which a negative image in plaster was prepared. Next a positive master was made using sulphur, which was readily available and easily workable as it melted only a few degrees above the boiling point of water, and set quickly to a smooth hard finish. 

From this master, Tassie then prepared a mould from a mixture of Tripoli (diatomaceous earth) and plaster of Paris, placed in a small crucible. He was now ready to cast a medallion. 

The mould was placed in a furnace, with a slab of vitreous paste placed above it. When heated the paste subsided into the mould, which was then removed from the furnace, and the back smoothed with an iron spatula. After cooling, the finished medallion was separated from the mould, which might be re-used

 

 

 

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Last modified: 01/14/10 (note American date arrangement)