1902 Encyclopedia > James Tassie

James Tassie
Gem engraver and modeller
(1735-99)




JAMES TASSIE (1735-1799), gem-engraver and modeller, was born of humble parentage at Pollokshaws, near Glasgow, in 1735. During his earlier years he worked as a stone-mason, but, having visited Glasgow on a fair-holiday, and seen the collection of paintings brought together in that city by Robert and Andrew Foulis, the celebrated printers, he was seized with an irresistible desire to become an artist. He removed to Glasgow, attended the academy which had been established there by the brothers Foulis, and, applying himself to drawing with indomitable perseverance, seconded by great natural aptitude, he eventually became one of the most distin-guished pupils of the school. "When his training was completed he visited Dublin in search of commissions, and there became acquainted with Dr Quin, who had been experimenting, as an amateur, in imitating antique engraved gems in coloured pastes. He engaged Tassie as an assistant, and together they perfected the discovery of a vitreous paste composition, styled "enamel," a substance admirably adapted, by its hardness and beauty of texture, for the formation of gems and medallions. Dr Quin encouraged his assistant to try his fortune in London, and thither he repaired in 1766. At first he had a hard struggle to make his way, for he was modest and diffident in the extreme, and without influential introductions to amateurs and collectors. But he worked on steadily with the greatest care and accuracy, scrupulously destroying all impressions of his gems which were in the slightest degree inferior or defective. Gradually the beauty and artistic character of his productions came to be known. He received a commission from the empress of Russia for a collection of about 15,000 examples; all the richest cabinets in Europe were thrown open to him for purposes of study and reproduction; and his copies were frequently sold by fraudulent dealers as the original gems. He exhibited in the Royal Academy from 1769 to 1791. In 1775 he published the first catalogue of his works, a thin pamphlet detailing 2856 items. This was followed in 1791 by a large catalogue, in two volumes quarto, with illustrations etched by David Allan, and descriptive text in English and French by Rudolph Eric Raspe, F.S.A., enumerating nearly 16,000 pieces. Materials exist in MS., in the possession of a descendant of Tassie's, for a list of more than 3000 further items.
In addition to his impressions from antique gems, Tassie executed many large profile medallion portraits of his contemporaries, and these form the most original and definitely artistic class of his works. They were modelled in wax from the life or from drawings done from the life, and—when this was impossible—from other authentic sources. They were then cast in white enamel paste, the whole medallion being sometimes executed in this material; while in other cases the head only appears in enamel, relieved against a background of ground-glass tinted of a subdued colour by paper placed behind. His first large enamel portrait was that of John Dolbon, son of Sit William Dolbon, Bart., modelled in 1793 or 1794 ; and the series possesses great historic interest, as well as artistic value, including as it does portraits of Adam Smith, Sir Henry Baeburn, Drs James Beattie, Blair, Black, and Cullen, and many other celebrated men of the latter half of the 18th century.
At the time of his death, in 1799, the collection of Tassie's works numbered about 20,000 pieces, (J. M. G.)








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