Blaschka radiolarian model (Actinomma asteracanthian).
Modern glass working.
These fragile artworks were made by father-and-son team Leopold and Rudolph Blaschka, in a small room at home with very basic equipment.
With no apprentices, the secret of their techniques died with them. Even with more refined modern tools, glass artists today have been unable to replicate the Blaschkas’ delicate work.
Leopold Blaschka (1822–1895).
Leopold Blaschka joined his family’s jewellery and metalwork business as a young man in the mid-1800s, in what is now the Czech Republic. Here he learned the art of lampworking, of bending and shaping glass with a gas torch.
But his life then shattered, when his wife and father died. From this tragedy came inspiration.
Purple-striped jellyfish (Pelagia noctiluca).
Leopold decided to grieve away from Europe and so he sailed to America. On the voyage he took comfort in observing nature.
He was already a keen naturalist, but had never seen the strange animals of the open ocean, such as jellyfish. To him they looked as if they were made of glass. When he finally returned to Germany, he began to recreate the fragile life he had seen.
Blaschka jellyfish model (Aurelia aurita).
Leopold’s superbly accurate and beautiful work caught the eye of a museum in Dresden that was struggling to display animals without backbones, such as jellyfish. Collapsed at the bottom of jars, real specimens are difficult to see.
The museum persuaded Leopold to recreate the fantastical creatures from his voyage as he had seen them, with their tentacles rippling in the ocean’s current.
Scientific illustrations of radiolarians, by Ernst Haeckel.
Leopold was joined by his son Rudolf in 1876 and the business expanded. Influenced by advances in the study of marine invertebrates by scientists such as Philip Henry Gosse and Ernst Haeckel, their models became increasingly accurate.
From their small workshop they made superbly crafted, life-like models for collectors across the world, from enigmatic octopuses to microscopic single-celled plankton such as this radiolarian.
Harvard glass iris (Iris versicolor).
The Natural History Museum purchased 182 Blaschka models between 1866 and 1889. The growth of orders such as this inspired Rudolph to improve his knowledge of zoology at Dresden University. He also discovered a love for plants, beginning to craft them, too.
In 1886 Harvard University commissioned an entire botanical garden of glass plants, a feat that secured the Blaschka fame.
Conservator at work on Blaschka model.
These treasures are extremely fragile structures. They are made from many materials, not just glass. Their natural resins, metals, paper and different glues can fall apart over time.
Conservators at the Museum have carefully cleaned and repaired each of these models. This work is vital for the safe-keeping of these irreplaceable objects that are among the most beautiful in the collection.
Find out about virtual modelling techniques used by Museum scientists today, in Images of Nature, in the Blue Zone.