Blaschka glass sea anemones

A scientific marvel in the field of art? Or an artistic marvel in the field of science? Either way, this isn’t the only mystery crystallised in the collection of glass marine creatures made by the famous German father and son team, Leopold and Rudolph Blaschka. For over 150 years, artists have tried to unlock the mystery of the Blaschka methods. Some have succeeded but many mysteries still remain.

Blaschka glass model of Sagartia venusta

Stuart Humphreys © Australian Museum

In the late 19th century, Leopold and Rudolph Blaschka were commissioned by various museums to create a collection of anatomically correct models of marine creatures. As soft-bodied animals quickly lost their colour and shape when collected from the sea, it was impossible to showcase their vivid colour and fanciful shape with a dead specimen. A meticulously made glass model, however, could easily stand in their place and demonstrate the vibrant colour and elaborate detail of these mysterious creatures.

The Blaschkas were in precisely the right place and time to tap into a new niche market. The 19th century was a time of great scientific advancement and the public’s fascination with natural history was acutely on the rise. This is particularly true of the mysteries held by the underwater world as deep sea diving began.

The Blaschkas pioneered many of their techniques and formulas and experimented often with glues, colours and glass. Many of their models were formed with wire skeletons and glass via a process called ‘lampworking’, where glass is heated over a flame and then twisted and pulled into shape with various tools. Other materials used included wax, paper and actual snail shells. While the Blaschkas always maintained that they used simple methods, some of their experimental techniques and formulas have never been able to be reproduced. Unfortunately, some of their recipes for glass, colour, and glues have gone with them to the grave.

These mysterious formulas have confounded conservators as they try to repair and preserve these intricate antiquities. Even simple cleaning can have devastating effects on the glue and colour. Despite these challenges, though, restoration is still possible. From March 2010, the Australian Museum is showcasing its restored Blaschka collection for the first time in nearly 70 years.

Take a closer look at the glass sea anemones. Consider the exquisite delicacy of the models and the meticulous nature of this fine artwork. Notice the detail and movement in the tentacles, the vibrancy of the colour, and the intricacies of the glasswork. Explore the disciplines echoed by these tiny marvels – do they illustrate art, chemistry, biology or all of these? While many questions still surround these miniature models, one thing seems certain: they will continue to hold their secrets like they have held the world’s interest for more than a century.

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Deborah White , Editor
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