This com­mon oc­to­pus model be­longs to the Nat­u­ral His­tory Mu­seum, Lon­don

Australian Geographic - - Contents - STORY BY IVY SHIH

The re­dis­cov­ery of a set of su­perbly hand­crafted sea anemones in the Aus­tralian Mu­seum re­veals a lost art that cap­tured the beauty of ma­rine life in glass.

When they were re­dis­cov­ered in the vast archives of the Aus­tralian Mu­seum, in Syd­ney, th­ese ex­traor­di­nar­ily de­tailed fig­urines cap­tured the imag­i­na­tion of all who saw them. But where did they come from and who crafted them?

In 2009 mu­seum staff de­cided it was time to trace the ori­gins of th­ese mys­te­ri­ous glass cre­ations and the task fell to archivist Pa­tri­cia Egan. After nav­i­gat­ing her way through nu­mer­ous min­utes, memos and let­ters from the mu­seum’s early his­tory, Pa­tri­cia hit pay­dirt. In the Trustee Min­utes for 1879, she found ref­er­ence to the mu­seum’s at­tempts to en­rich its col­lec­tion of ed­u­ca­tional and com­par­a­tive anatomy spec­i­mens, along with rec­om­men­da­tions from mu­seum trustee Archibald Liver­sidge for some items to pur­chase and suit­able sup­pli­ers.

This led to the dis­cov­ery of a copy of a letter sent the same year to Vá­clav Fricˇ, who ran an ed­u­ca­tional sup­ply busi­ness in Prague, re­gard­ing the pur­chase of “spec­i­mens il­lus­tra­tive of com­par­a­tive anatomy”, in­clud­ing “glass mod­els of in­ver­te­brates made by Dr Blaschka”. It con­firmed the belief among mu­seum staff that the mod­els had been crafted by Leopold and Ru­dolf Blaschka, fa­ther and son crafts­men from Dres­den, Ger­many.

Dur­ing the late 1800s, the Blaschkas de­vel­oped a method of us­ing glass to craft repli­cas of soft-bod­ied sea crea­tures that were so life­like it was as if they’d just been scooped from the ocean.

The mid-19th cen­tury was an era when nat­u­ral his­tory ex­plo­ration f lour­ished. Sci­en­tif ic ex­pe­di­tions to the far cor­ners of the globe reg­u­larly de­liv­ered new species to ea­ger sci­en­tists and mu­seum cu­ra­tors in Europe. How­ever, the preser­va­tion of ma­rine in­ver­te­brates such as jel­ly­fish proved ex­tremely dif­fi­cult. The tra­di­tional method, us­ing for­ma­lin and al­co­hol, caused spec­i­mens’ colours to fade and their shapes to dis­tort, mak­ing them use­less for dis­play and ed­u­ca­tional pur­poses. With this in mind, in 1863 the then di­rec­tor of Dres­den’s nat­u­ral his­tory mu­seum, Pro­fes­sor Lud­wig Re­ichen­bach, con­vinced Leopold Blaschka to fo­cus his at­ten­tion on the pro­duc­tion of sci­en­tif ic glass mod­els.

Leopold and Ru­dolf were de­scen­dants of a long line of glass­mak­ers. The Blaschka fam­ily had been cre­at­ing cos­tume jew­ellery, lab­o­ra­tory equip­ment and even glass eyes for more than 300 years. Fol­low­ing Re­ichen­bach’s sug­ges­tion, fa­ther and son devoted them­selves to de­vel­op­ing tech­niques that would en­able them to copy ma­rine in­ver­te­brates with some­thing close to per­fec­tion. At­tempt­ing to make the mod­els as anatom­i­cally ac­cu­rate as pos­si­ble, they pored over sci­en­tif ic il­lus­tra­tions, fre­quently bor­row­ing books from the li­brary of fa­mous Ger­man nat­u­ral­ist and il­lus­tra­tor Ernst Haeckel.

The mod­els were crafted us­ing a tech­nique known as lam­p­work­ing, which in­volves glass be­ing melted over a f lame and pulled into shape us­ing hand tools. The Blaschkas con­stantly ex­per­i­mented with new ma­te­ri­als and de­vel­oped their own glues and dyes.

The two crafts­men as­sem­bled glass sec­tions with an­i­mal glues and at­tached model ten­ta­cles with fine cop­per wire. To cre­ate tex­ture, they em­ployed wax, resin and painted pa­per. Speck­les of paint ap­plied to the un­der­side of glass re-cre­ated the translu­cent and dap­pled tis­sues of­ten ob­served in ma­rine crea­tures such as squid.

The Blaschkas’ model-mak­ing abil­i­ties were un­matched, and they built a suc­cess­ful busi­ness sell­ing their works to museums and uni­ver­si­ties world­wide. Es­ti­mates sug­gest that dur­ing a 27-year pe­riod they cre­ated about 10,000 ma­rine in­ver­te­brate mod­els. Records of sales have been traced to 177 col­lec­tions through­out the USA, UK, Europe, In­dia, Ja­pan and Aus­tralia.

THEY’RE SIM­PLY EX­QUIS­ITE – 48 del­i­cate, vi­brantly coloured glass mod­els de­pict­ing an ar­ray of sea anemones and other ma­rine in­ver­te­brates.

Al­though Pa­tri­cia man­aged to track down the source of the Aus­tralian Mu­seum’s mod­els, the species they rep­re­sented were un­known. She was un­able to link the mod­els with the sur­viv­ing spec­i­men dis­play la­bels, which out­num­bered the mod­els.

How­ever, some of the mod­els had num­bers stuck to their un­der­sides and, with the help of Chris Meechan from the National Mu­seum Wales, she was able to link some of th­ese to model num­bers in the Blaschkas’ 1871 cat­a­logue.

Iden­ti­fy­ing the oth­ers was al­ways go­ing to be more dif­fi­cult. “The prob­lem is that some of them had been re­clas­si­fied, and what they look like in the wild and look like in the model can be dif­fer­ent, be­cause in a ma­rine en­vi­ron­ment, they can be clus­tered to­gether,” Pa­tri­cia ex­plained.

So, she en­listed the help of Aus­tralian anemone expert Michela Mitchell from Museums Vic­to­ria. “She came up here once and saw them, but mainly she worked off pho­tos we sent to her and copies of the cat­a­logue that we had from Chris Meechan,” Pa­tri­cia said. “It took her quite some time and she did it out of love.”

Michela was able to link many of the mod­els to il­lus­tra­tions in Acti­nolo­gia Bri­tan­nica: A His­tory of the Bri­tish Sea-Anemones and Corals, an 1860 work by Philip Henry Gosse that the Blaschkas them­selves had stud­ied. Even­tu­ally, Pa­tri­cia and her helpers were able to iden­tify all but one of the species rep­re­sented by the mod­els.

Al­though the Blaschkas’ fig­urines are no longer used as ed­u­ca­tional mod­els, their beauty and artistry is im­pos­si­ble to deny, and a se­lec­tion is now back on dis­play at the mu­seum.

The Blaschkas’ model-mak­ing abil­i­ties were un­matched.

Sa­gar­tia pura

Stom­phia churchiae

Cal­li­ac­tis dec­o­rata

Caryophyl­lia smithii

and his fa­ther, Leopold Blaschka, were part of a fam­ily who had been craft­ing ob­jects from glass – rang­ing from cos­tume jew­ellery to pros­thetic eyes – for more than three cen­turies.

Ru­dolf Blaschka, left,

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