Scientific specimens are nothing out of the ordinary for Harvard University, but the Ware Collection of Blaschka Glass Models of Plants is something truly unique.
Today, we have high-resolution photography and other technological tools that allow us to examine animal and plant species. In the 19th century, however, the examination of specimens—animals and plants collected from the wild—was a primary method of scientific discovery. This presented problems, particularly for botanical and invertebrate specimens, which lost their colour and form when preserved.
Born in Bohemia in 1822, Leopold Blaschka came from a family of glass artists that stretched back generations. Initially, his glasswork focused on costume jewelry and other high-end consumer products, however, he developed a fascination with invertebrate sea creatures when a voyage to American resulted in his ship being becalmed for two weeks. Thus began a rendering of the natural world through glass that would result in hundreds of lifelike models of invertebrates and plants in museums and universities across Europe and North America.
Leopold created his first collection of invertebrate models at the behest of Ludwig Reichenbach, from the natural history museum in Dresden, Germany. Exquisitely detailed, these glass models did what preserved specimens could not – retain the color and shape of the animals. Other museums and collectors quickly caught on to the value of Leopold’s models, allowing him to create a successful mail order business, shipping models of sea anemones, jellyfish, and other ocean invertebrates around the world.
It might seem an impossible task, convincing a well-known artist like Leopold to give up a successful business creating glass sea animals in exchange for an annual contract to make glass plant specimens, but George Goodall, curator of the Harvard Natural History Museum managed to do so. The result was a collection of over 4,300 glass models, representing 780 species of flowers, produced over a fifty year period by Leopold and his son, Rudolf.
It’s almost impossible to describe how lifelike the Harvard Glass Flowers are. From the dusting of pollen to the replication of tiny hairs on the leaves, each one is a perfect replica of the living original, as if someone plucked it from the forest and displayed it.
Leopold and Rudolf used lampworking—a technique where glass is shaped beneath the flame of a torch, rather than blown—to make their creations. The level of detail is so precise that many people thought the Blaschka’s used a secret technique to create their works. Leopold refuted this, explaining that it was generations of skill that gave them the ability to create these works.
“The only way to become a glass modeler of skill, I have often said to people, is to get a good great-grandfather who loved glass; then he is to have a son with like tastes; he is to be your grandfather. He in turn will have a son who must, as your father, be passionately fond of glass. You, as his son, can then try your hand, and it is your own fault if you do not succeed. But, if you do not have such ancestors, it is not your fault. My grandfather was the most widely known glassworker in Bohemia.”
The Harvard Glass Flowers were restored in 2016, and the exhibit is open to the public.