Marvelous glass sculptures of sea creatures stand the test of time

Marvelous glass sculptures of sea creatures stand the test of time

Father and son glass-makers Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka devoted their lives to create astonishing glass sculptures of invertebrate animals and plants.

They produced thousands of beautifully detailed glass models from the mid-1800s until the 1930s, for clients as illustrious as Harvard University, Cornell University, and the Natural History Museum of London and Dublin. The Blaschka’s put tremendous emphasis on conveying, through glass, as much detail and accuracy as possible.

The glass sculptures they produced were highly-specialized 3D models used by researchers to aid in species identification and study at time in which almost all such information was stored as text and drawings. By 1888, this father and son team offered 700 models that, according to Leopold Blaschka himself, were “universally acknowledged as being perfectly true to nature.”

An intricate model of a Portuguese Man-of-War (Physalia arethusa)
The 'float' is about 55mm wide by 90mm long. Total height: 240mm. There are about two hundred tentacles made of thin coloured glass, supported and attached by fine copper wires.

Due to their rare and fragile nature, the institutions who acquired these magnificent models have considerable restrictions in place in order to protect and preserve them and access is extremely limited. The models have been analysed by the National History Museum conservation unit, using many techniques like the CT scanning, so they can gain 3D data of the glass models and be able to explore the models from within. You can see the work of conservation and research of the glass models by the NHM in the next video:

Photographer Guido Mocafico managed to gain access to the Blaschka glass models and spent three years to carefully photograph the fragile exemplars. The photographs from those years of work were displayed in an exhibition at Hamilton’s Gallery in London on March 2016. You can se some of the glass models photos in the gallery below.

“What I thought would be one years work… has become an obsession, which is the attitude the Blaschka’s had in their work. We must not forget they spent 30-50 years each of their lifetimes, day and night, creating glass models. So for them the commitment was just unbelievable. I am not scared to face that kind of long term job because it is like a homage to the Blaschka’s.” - Guido Mocafico.

The approximately 4,400 surviving Blaschka biological models maintain an enduring value as glasswork masterpieces and as magnificent products of the ‘golden age’ of natural history. They tell the story of the history of the Blaschka family, the interest in marine life and dissemination of knowledge in 19th-century Europe, the techniques and methods of creating these beautiful glass models, and finally, the story of the objects themselves as an art form.

“If ever there was a time to compare the plentiful past with an ocean in jeopardy, that time would be now,” says Drew Harvell, Associate Director of Environment at the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future at Cornell, and curator of the Cornell Collection of Blaschka Invertebrate Models.

Harvell has partnered with filmmaker David Owen Brown to make the documentary "Fragile Legacy". The film, narrated by Ted Danson, employs Cornell’s Blaschka collection to highlight the need for the conservation of the world’s oceans. You can watch the trailer in the player below.

Published on: June 2016