James Tassie, Modeller

(b. 1735, d. 1799)


From A Dictionary of Irish Artists 1913

Was the eldest son of James Tassie and his wife, Margaret M'Ghie, and was born on 15th July, 1735, at Pollokshaws in the parish of Eastwood, near Glasgow, where his family had long resided. In his early days he worked as a stone-mason, and the carved tombstone in Eastwood churchyard over the grave of his father and mother is believed to be his work. Anxious to improve himself he began to study modelling in the Academy established by Robert and Andrew Foulis in Glasgow. In 1763 he went to Dublin in search of employment as a sculptor and modeller, and there he made the acquaintance of Dr. Henry Quin, King's Professor of Physics, a man esteemed for his learning and taste in the fine arts.*

Quin had been experimenting in imitating precious stones and gems and had made many improvements in the art, and took Tassie into his laboratory as an assistant. The two, working together, invented the white enamel composition, a vitreous paste, which Tassie afterwards used to cast his wax-modelled portraits and for his reproductions of gems. In the introduction to Raspé's "Catalogue of Tassie's Works," the artist gratefully acknowledges the instruction he had received from Dr. Quin, as well as the generous encouragement he had given him. The nature of the composition of the vitreous paste invented by Quin and Tassie was kept a secret by Tassie and his nephew William. An analysis shows that it was "a very easily fusible glass, essentially a lead potash glass."

The ingredients were fired at a moderate heat, and when of a pasty consistency impressed with the mould or matrix and afterwards polished. For his medallion portraits, a mould, or cast, in intaglio in plaster of Paris was taken from the original wax model; from this cast a second cast in relief was made, and from this was taken a mould in glass paste from which the final result was obtained. The same paste was used both for the portrait medallions and for the intaglio gems, and the artist was able to vary the colour, making it transparent or opaque, to suit either the portraits or the gems, and he succeeded in imitating the varied layers of a cameo or the laminations of a stone. Tassie's portrait medallions are usually white, but he sometimes produced them with the yellow tone and markings of old ivory, or with the delicate veining of marble.

When he had brought his invention to perfection Tassie left Dublin in 1766 and settled in London. The year of his departure he exhibited at the Society of Artists in William Street a "Portrait of a Gentleman modelled in wax." He was then living in Nassau Street. In 1767, soon after his arrival in London, he was awarded by the Society of Arts a premium of ten guineas for "figures, heads and portraits of his composition resembling antique onyx." Of a retiring and diffident nature his progress was at first slow; but the fine quality of his work gradually became appreciated and his imitations of gems became sought for and fashionable. Wedgwood recognized the merit of his work, and by 1769 had given him commissions for models for reproductions in Wedgwood paste. He made the first plaster casts from the celebrated "Portland Vase" while it was still in the possession of the Barberini family.

In 1775 Tassie issued a catalogue of his reproductions of antique gems, which included 3,106 items. Later he supplied the Empress Catherine of Russia with a complete collection of his pastes of gems and cameos. This collection was arranged and described by Rudolph Eric Raspé, professor of Archaeology and keeper of the Museum at Cassel. On the completion of his task he issued a small volume describing the collection: "Account of the present State and Arrangement of Mr. James Tassie's Collection of Pastes and Impressions from Ancient and Modern Gems, with a few Remarks on the Origin of Engraving on Hard Stones, and the Methods of Taking impressions of them in different Substances" (1786). Describing Tassie's gems he says that the impressions were taken in a beautiful white enamel composition which is not subject to shrink or form air bladders, but strikes fire with steel and takes a fine polish, which shows every stroke and touch of the art in higher perfection than any other imitation; and the pastes were cast and finished in coloured glass imitating the original stone of the gem."

Raspé's final catalogue of Tassie's works appeared in 1791 in two quarto volumes. "A Descriptive Catalogue of a General Collection of Ancient and Modern Engraved Gems, Cameos as well as Intaglios, taken from the most celebrated Cabinets in Europe, and cast in Coloured Pastes, White Enamel, and Sulphur, by James Tassie, Modeller; arranged and described by R. E. Raspé. . . ." The text was in French and English, with 57 plates containing 368 engravings of gems, drawn and etched by David Allan, a fellow-pupil of Tassie at the Foulis Academy.

Fine as was Tassie's work in the reproduction of gems it is by his portrait medallions that he takes rank as an artist. These medallions, modelled from life in wax and afterwards cast in the white enamel, or glass paste, in their modelling, their definite precision and certainty and the skilful treatment of drapery, lace and ornamental work, rival the productions of the great Italian medallists and have never been surpassed. His extensive series of portraits numbers nearly 500, and is an important contribution to national portraiture. He was largely patronized by his countrymen, and many of the personages he depicts are Scottish. Not more than eighteen of his portraits represent Irishmen, and of these only one—that of Miss Molesworth, which is dated 1764—can, with any certainty, be said to have been done in Ireland, although those of Dr. Quin and his father may also have been so done. But even in these cases it is probable that the wax models only were done in Ireland, and that the paste reproductions were made subsequently in London.

Tassie exhibited at the Society of British Artists in 1767 two "models in wax," and in 1768 "two portraits modelled in paste." At the Royal Academy he was a constant exhibitor from 1769 to 1791.

His medallion portraits were usually oval, about four inches by three and a half inches. The faces, with few exceptions, are shown in profile. Those not in profile were generally taken from painted or other portraits. For his models he usually took three sittings, the first two of about an hour each, the third less than half an hour. The medallions have sometimes a field or background of white enamel paste, and sometimes clear or slightly obscured glass, which was softly tinted by coloured paper placed behind it. Medallions are sometimes found mounted on thick brown or blue glass with bevelled edge; these are not Tassie's mounts, but were affixed by a London dealer long after Tassie's death to a number of portraits that came into his possession.

Tassie died on the 1st June, 1799, and was buried in the graveyard attached to the meeting-house known as "Collier's Rents" in Southwark. A younger brother, John, appears to have assisted him in modelling after 1793. His nephew, WILLIAM TASSIE, born in 1777, succeeded to his property and continued his business at No. 20 Leicester Square, and added largely to the work of his uncle in gems. He also modelled portraits, but his work was not equal to that of James Tassie. He retired in 1840 and died on 26th October, 1860. A complete list of James Tassie's medallion portraits is given in "James and William Tassie, a biographical and critical sketch," etc., by John M. Gray, 1894. The following is a list of James Tassie's medallions of Irish personages:

Edward Augustus, 2nd Earl of Aldborough. Dated 1787.

Anne Elizabeth, Countess of Aldborough. Dated 1787.

George Barret, R.A. Not dated.

John Bowes, Lord Chancellor of Ireland. (Doubtful.) Not dated.

Edmund Burke. Dated 1797.

General H. Seymour-Conway. In Wm. Tassie's list, but has not been met with.

Sir Trevor Corry. In Raspé's and Tassie's Catalogues, but has not been met with.

Edmund Malone, Justice of the Common Pleas, 1767. In above catalogues, but has not been met with.

Lt.-General Eyre Massy, afterwards Lord Clarina. Not dated.

Hon. Miss Molesworth, daughter of Robert, 3rd Viscount Molesworth. No example in enamel paste has been met with. The wax model, in possession of J. P. Heseltine, is dated 1764.

Henry Quin, M.D. No inscription or date.

Henry Quin, M.D. From a medal by Mossop.

Henry Quin, M.D. From a gem engraved by John Logan (q.v.).

— Quin, father of Dr. Quin. Not dated.

William Raper, a subscriber to Raspé's Catalogue, 1791; conjectured to be a glazier of that name of the Blind Quay, Dublin. In William Tassie's list.

William Raper. Not dated.

Mrs. Raper. From a drawing.

Richard Robinson, Archbishop of Armagh. After a bust by Bacon. Not dated.


* Henry Quin was seven times President of the College of Physicians, between 1758 and 1781. He lived in a house on the south side of St. Stephen's Green. Died in 1791.

Raspé was the reputed author of the celebrated "Adventures of Baron Munchausen." He died at Muckross, Co. Kerry, in 1794, where he was posing as a mining engineer.

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