Words by Alex Rayner / Photography by Guido Mocafico
In 1853, Leopold Blaschka, a young Czech-born jeweller and glass-blower, suffered a bout of ill health, perhaps caused by the death of his parents. To raise his spirits, Blaschka bought a sea passage from Europe to America, and developed an interest in the species of marine life he came across during his voyage. Upon his return, Blaschka began to recreate the animals he had seen in glass. A few years later, Leopold’s son, Rudolf, was born, and the family moved to Dresden.
When the city’s natural history museum learnt of how Blaschka could bring marine invertebrates to life, drifting as if in the seas rather than limp in their specimen jars, they commissioned a number of models from the glassmaker. These – a set of anemones – proved popular and Blaschka’s reputation spread.
The glassmaker’s ability to reproduce little-seen animals, as well as exotic flowers and plants – another of Blaschka’s enthusiasms – coincided with the Victorian trend for exploration and scientific advancement, as well as the rise of great public museums on both sides of the Atlantic. Institutions in Britain, and the US, including the Botanical Museum at Harvard University and London’s South Kensington Museum (the precursor of the Natural History Museum) ordered works from Blaschka. The models drew reliable crowds, in part because the Blaschkas’ talents prefigured photography, servicing the same desire to wonder at distant and strange animal life that is now satisfied by nature documentaries and National Geographic.