It started with a sea voyage and a jellyfish.

Master glassblower Leopold Blaschka was already a successful maker of glass eyes when he fell ill in 1853. His doctor prescribed time at sea and Blaschka spent the journey from Bohemia to the U.S. and back drawing and studying sea creatures. Back home, Blaschka began making and selling cunningly accurate models of invertebrates, in part because he had already invented glass spinning, a technique that enabled him to create very detailed—and anatomically accurate—glass pieces.

Before the invention of photography, hand-drawn and blown glass models of organisms were highly sought after. Blaschka’s sea creatures were based not only on his own studies but also on Philip Henry Grosse’s wonderfully illustrated, richly colored Actinologia Britannica, published in 1860. Highly regarded for their accuracy, Blaschka’s marine invertebrates were snapped up by museums and private collectors, who wanted them for their cabinets of curiosities. Famous keepers of such cabinets included Beatrice Potter and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Blaschka also began making glass models of flowers, including a set of orchids for amateur botanist and Bohemian prince Camille de Rohan, now the name of a rose.  Leopold’s son Rudolph, born in 1857, joined his father in the glassworks in 1880, and the pair’s reputation for accuracy, innovation, and breathtaking beauty continued to spread.

Enter Harvard University professor of botany George Goodale, the founding director of the university’s Botanical Museum. At the time, botanical specimens were presented dried and pressed, leaving too much to the imagination for the demanding scientist and educator. Pressed specimens were two-dimensional, devoid of most of their original colors, and thus not especially useful for teaching. It is not exactly clear how Goodale connected with the Blaschkas, but once they did, Harvard began to grow its glass flower collection.

Under an exclusive contract funded by Mary Lee Ware, a former student of Goodale’s, the Blaschkas made thousands of glass botanical models for Harvard, 780 of which are life-sized. The intricate models are on display at Harvard’s Museum of Natural History.

The models were made with an evolving suite of materials and techniques, not all of which have held up against the ravages of time. Former WSU glassblower David Gover connected with the Harvard Museum of Natural History in the 1990s, and spent a year studying the Blaschkas’ construction methods.

“They used the same techniques I was trained in,” Gover says. The myth around the glass flowers was that the Blaschkas used a secret glassblowing technique. In fact, say Gover and others—including the Blaschkas themselves—they used the Bohemian lampwork technique—a method developed in Venice hundreds of years ago. Both clear and colored glass is heated using a “lamp,” a flame fed in the Blaschkas’ day by a foot-powered bellows. Gover uses a propane and oxygen torch, but the technique remains the same: carefully shaping and layering the glass until the desired form is achieved.

The Blaschkas’ first models, says Gover, were constructed using a variety of types of glass, as well as glues to hold the separate pieces together. Some of these elements were then painted, as well. Harvard University now has a conservator working to restore these pieces. Later models, Gover says, were entirely glass-on-glass, often constructed around a copper-wire armature.

After 40 years as a commercial and scientific glassblower, Gover is returning to lampwork. He points out that Rudolph Blaschka died without an apprentice, and so the techniques used to make the glass flowers were nearly lost.

“I want to start a nonprofit so I can teach young glassblowers that there’s more to the art than making pipes,” Gover says. To that end, Gover can frequently be found giving demonstrations of the lampwork method, or in classrooms with kids, teaching them the basics of glassblowing using molten sugar. Kids love working with sugar, he says, and it is, given common-sense precautions and equipment, much safer to work with, since the temperatures involved are much lower than with real glass.



Read about scientific glassblowing in “The glassblowers.”

On the web

Harvard University Ware Collection of Blaschka Glass Models of Plants

Video: Harvard restores its glass flowers