TASSIE, JAMES (1735-1799), Scottish gem-engraver and modeller, was born of humble parentage at Pollokshaws, near Glasgow, in 1735. During his earlier years he worked as a stonemason, but, having seen the collection of paintings brought together in Glasgow by Robert and Andrew Foulis, the printers, he removed to Glasgow, attended the academy which had been established there by the brothers Foulis, and became one of the most distinguished pupils of the school. Subsequently 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 an "enamel," 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. 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 1 775 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, enumerating nearly 16,000 pieces.
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 Sir 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 Raeburn, 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.
His nephew, William Tassie (1777-1860), also a gem engraver and modeller, succeeded to James Tassie's business and added largely to his collection of casts and medallions. His portrait of Pitt, in particular, was very popular, and circulated widely. When the Shakespeare Gallery, formed by Alderman Boydell, was disposed of by lottery in 1805, William Tassie was the winner of the prize, and in the same year he sold the pictures by auction for a sum of over 6000. He bequeathed to the Board of Manufactures, Edinburgh, an extensive and valuable collection of casts and medallions by his uncle and himself, along with portraits of James Tassie and his wife by David Allan, and a series of water-colour studies by George Sanders from pictures of the Dutch and Flemish schools.
(J. M. G.)
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