A menagerie of sea creatures come to life in vintage glass models

In the 19th century, a father-son team fashioned sea animals from glass to be classroom aids. Today, the fragile pieces are prized by museums.

By Natasha Daly
photographs by Guido Mocafico
Published 7 May 2021, 12:38 BST

Gifted glass artists Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka made models of sea life from 1863 to 1890. This one is identified as Renilla muelleri, a type of sea pansy.

Photograph by Guido Mocafico

For still life master Guido Mocafico, it’s been a years-long quest: to find and photograph a menagerie of century-old glass sea creatures, scattered among institutions and museums worldwide.

The sculptures are the work of Czech glassworkers Leopold Blaschka and his son Rudolf. From 1863 to 1890 the men crafted nearly 10,000 models of 700 species of octopuses, jellyfish, anemones, and more.

The Blaschkas’ glass model of Caliphylla mediterranea, a kind of sea slug, was in the National Museum of Ireland’s natural history collection when Mocafico photographed it.

Photograph by Guido Mocafico

The Corallium rubrum that the Blaschkas replicated in glass is also known as red coral or precious coral. Mocafico photographed it at the University Museum Utrecht in the Netherlands.

Photograph by Guido Mocafico

Fascination with natural history, particularly the sea, exploded in the mid-19th century—but sea creatures were difficult to obtain and preserve. The Blaschkas’ lifelike models were in demand not only as teaching tools but also as objects of art.

Descended from a family of glass artists, Leopold could create tendrils like silk strands and polyps like dewdrops. His specific techniques used with the glass creatures have never been fully replicated. To make the sea creatures anatomically accurate, the Blaschkas worked from illustrations, specimens, and later live creatures kept in home aquariums.

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