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"Flowers That Never Fade": The Blaschka Glass Flowers at Harvard

Updated: Mar 31, 2023


From The Glass Flowers collection. Courtesy Harvard University Herbaria


Introduction


An article in a Hardy Plant Society journal from last year reminded me about this collection of glass models of plants and flowers that I first read about some years ago. Generally known as ‘The Glass Flowers’, the full title of this collection is actually ‘The Ware Collection of Blaschka Glass Models of Plants’ and is located at Harvard University in Boston.

If you’ve not come across these glass flowers before, they are truly extraordinary – and really are made of glass; although many visitors to the collection often think they’re made of silk or that they're real. And the story of how The Glass Flowers came about is just as fascinating.


The glass models were commissioned by the Harvard Botany Museum (now the Harvard University Herbaria) from Dresden-based glass artisans Leopold Blaschka (1822-1895) and his son Rudolph (1857-1939). Over the course of 50 years, the Blaschkas created a collection of some 4,200 unique botanical masterpieces for use by botany students and to instruct the public.


From The Glass Flowers collection. Courtesy Harvard University Herbaria


The Glass Flowers of Harvard


The Glass Flowers collection is the only one of its kind in the world, described by the Director of Harvard University back in 2016 (following a restoration of the collection), as “one of Harvard’s greatest treasures… a combination of unparalleled artistic beauty and scientific rigor” – the collection providing “examples of the flora of the world in bloom all at once”.


The collection has it's origins in the late 1880’s, when the first director of Harvard’s new Botany Museum, Professor George Goodale (1839-1923), was trying to find botanically accurate plant models for research and teaching purposes, as well as to inform the public. Plant replicas at the time were just not up to the job, as only pressed herbarium specimens (2 dimensional and which quickly lost their colour), papier-mache, or wax models were available. But Professor Goodale had an idea. He’d seen glass models of marine invertebrates made by the German glass-makers on show at Harvard’s natural history department, and thought glass might provide what he was looking for. And so, in 1886, he set off to Dresden to meet the Blaschkas.


The Blaschkas already shared a passion for natural history and, as well as their models of marine invertebrates – including squid, jellyfish, sea anemones, and octopus, which they sold to museums all over the world, they had already begun to make plants and flowers from glass. Their intention being not to create 'art', but as a scientific undertaking – models accurate and exact in every detail. Many of their very first glass flowers and plants were exhibited at the Royal Botanical Garden in Dresden.


The glass models of marine invertebrates produced by the Blaschkas are as extraordinary as their flowers. Courtesy Harvard University Museum of Natural History


The Blaschkas were initially reluctant to accept Harvard's commission – as it would mean scaling back on their successful, and profitable, glass marine model business. However, Goodale's persuasion won out, and in the spring of 1887 they sent off a set of test models to Harvard. Despite being damaged at US customs, the beauty and craftsmanship of the models was apparent, and so impressed was Goodale that he set about persuading wealthy Bostonians to fund the collection. Goodale was fortunate indeed that a previous student of his, Mary Ware (1858-1937), an avid student of botany, was also from a very wealthy family and she, in turn, convinced her mother, Elizabeth Ware (1819-1898) (already a benefactor of Harvard’s botany department), to underwrite the enterprise.


Rudolph, pictured with his father Leopold and mother Caroline, in their garden in Germany. Date unknown [but pre-1850, the year Caroline died]

The Wares were, like Goodale, enchanted by the first glass flower models to arrive and, after the death of Mary’s father that same year, agreed to fund the entire collection as a memorial to him. Later, after Elizabeth’s death, Mary undertook the funding of the Blaschka’s work alone – even visiting them in Germany several times, and becoming good friends with Rudolph and his wife, Frieda.


After a few years, the Blaschkas gave up on their other glass-making activities to concentrate solely on producing the glass flower models for Harvard. The glass flowers, unlike their glass marine invertebrate models, were produced solely for, and are therefore unique to, Harvard. Rudolph continued to make the models for Harvard after his father's death, working on alone until his retirement in 1938 at the age of 80.


From The Glass Flowers collection. Courtesy Harvard University Herbaria


The collection at Harvard consists of 847 life-size models, representing 780 species and varieties of plants in 164 families, with some 3,000 detailed models, such as plant parts and anatomical sections. In total, the collection comprises 4,400 individual glass models representing over 830 plant species.


Lupinus mutabilis with detailed flower parts. From The Glass Flowers collection. Courtesy Harvard University Herbaria


The models are made completely from glass with wire supports, both internally and externally. Coloured glass was used, although some paint and enamel colouring was also added. It's often said that the Blaschkas had some secret technique – now lost, but the techniques they used were common place at the time. The primary technique used being 'lampworking', which involves heating rods of clear or coloured glass over a small burner, and bending them using metal pliers (see Note). It was their skill, enthusiasm, and meticulous attention to detail that produced the extraordinary models. Donald Pfister, a recent Professor of Botany at Harvard notes that, despite some of the models being more than a century old, he’s not found a botanist yet who can find fault with them.


In a recent article written by Professor Pfister and a colleague, they also point out that in the Blaschkas work, informed by their study of plants in nature, they employed inventive methods to shape and colour the glass – and developed methods to mimic the surface textures and colours of leaves, branches, and flowers. When the collection was first exhibited, the American public were generally aware of the importance of plants as botany was taught in schools and colleges as a regular part of the curriculum. This probably explains why Professor Goodale also wanted the collection to appeal to visitors – especially for those who, having learnt about exotic plants and flowers at school, had limited opportunities to see the real thing. For example, even bananas and mangos were considered rare and exotic at the time.


College students admiring the glass models c. late 1930’s. From the Blaschka archive, The Corning Museum of Glass


Goodale’s vision, and that of his successor, Professor Oakes Ames, was to further educate the public about plants. And, as well as flowers, the Blaschkas provided series of models representing diseased fruits, insect pollination of plants, and the life cycles of fungi, ferns, and bryophytes [the mosses and liverworts]. All with the aim to increase understanding of plant biology, structure, and reproduction.


A conservator working on a diseased fruit glass model. From The Glass Flowers collection. Courtesy Harvard University Herbaria


The Collection in the 1890's


In 1894, the Botanical Gazette in the US carried an article about the collection written by Walter Deane (1848-1930), a graduate of Harvard, amateur botanist, and founding member of the New England Botanical Club. In the article, he details the plants used by the Blaschkas, describing an “American garden” around their house in which they grew North American plants, often from seed obtained from the US. And in 1892, Rudolph travelled to the Caribbean and the US to study more plants, making extensive notes as well as botanical sketches, mostly executed in pencil and watercolour. The Blaschkas also studied specimens at the Dresden Botanical Garden, while from the nearby royal garden of Pillnitz Palace, they were able to secure more exotic plant specimens from Central and South America.


Botanical sketch of a Bromeliad – notated in preparation for working in glass. From the Blaschka archive, The Corning Museum of Glass


According to the article, the Blaschkas created, on average, 50 models each year, with consignments sent to Harvard twice a year. Deane thought the botanical accuracy of the flower models was “positively startling” and, while “the eye is at first attracted by the great beauty of the flowers, as they lie on their white cards in the glass cases... on a closer examination, we are more and more surprised and delighted to find nature so accurately followed…”. An opinion which still holds true today.


Deane even undertook what he called a “critical study” of the models – even checking the number of stamens in the model flowers using his own herbarium specimens as reference. He concluded that they were indeed perfectly accurate, and thought that “the models are the living plants, and every plant has its separate pattern [with] no two being exactly alike”. After studying several species of Aster for example, he failed to find fault with any of them. Deane finishes his article by concluding that the artists (as he referred to the Blaschkas) had shown “marvellous care and accuracy…in all their work... every plant tells the same story of nature closely followed out, and I am glad to bear my testimony to the almost magical work of Leopold and Rudolph Blaschka”.


Asters from The Glass Flowers collection. Courtesy Harvard University Herbaria


Such was the interest in The Glass Flowers collection that in 1897, the author of a guidebook on Harvard, Franklin Baldwin Wiley, published a small book titled Flowers That Never Fade: An Account of the Ware Collection of Blaschka Glass Models in the Harvard University Museum. Wiley had initially written an account of the glass flowers for a Boston newspaper as the university received so many requests for information. As enquiries following that article continued, he prepared what he described as a “carefully revised and considerably extended” publication to meet that demand.

In his book, Wiley described the problems ”since flowers were first created” in trying to recreate the “grace and loveliness of these fairest and frailest of all growing things”. No imitations had, thus far, been successful as they all “lose their brightness and freshness almost as soon as the beautiful blossoms from which they are copied lose theirs” – until “deft and cunning workers in glass” surmounted all obstacles to produce imitations that would fool the eye.


The Restoration


In November 2015, The Glass Flowers gallery, which first opened to the public in April 1893, underwent a 6 month restoration, introducing rebuilt, original historic wood and glass display cases, new state-of-the-art lighting, and sophisticated conservation systems. The reconfigured gallery space also improved the scientific interpretation for the visitor, together with its ongoing scientific relevance. While the famous collection receives 200,000 visitors a year, Professor Pfister points out that the collection is still used by science students and botanical researchers.


Restored display cases. Courtesy Harvard University Herbaria


The restoration project is expected to continue for years to come, as it’s also planned to resolve issues with many models not currently on display. Some have experienced minor damage over the years due to their extreme fragility, and from failure of the 19th century glue originally used by the Blaschkas. For more detail on the restoration of The Glass Flowers, please do view the YouTube video titled 'Harvard restores its famed glass flowers' (see Notes).


As the restored models are still so fragile, they never leave Harvard. So I think a visit to Boston is called for...



Notes:


Link to YouTube video titled 'Harvard restores its famed glass flowers' on the Harvard Museum of Natural History page below, which includes detail on the 'lampworking' technique:


References (available online):


‘Inspired by Plants: The Glass Flowers as a Window into Botanical Education’, by Donald H. Pfister and Jennifer Brown of the Harvard University Herbaria, from The Journal of Antiques and Collectibles


‘The Ware Collection of Blaschka Glass Models of Flowers at Harvard’ by Walter Deane, Botanical Gazette, April 1894, Vol.19, No.4


‘Flowers out of Glass’ by Nancy Marie Brown, Penn State University, August 31, 1999. (This article includes lots of detail regarding glass-making techniques)


Flowers That Never Fade: An Account of the Ware Collection of Blaschka Glass Models in the Harvard University Museum by Franklin Baldwin Wiley, 1897


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