Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Tassie, James
TASSIE, JAMES (1735–1799), modeller, born at Pollokshaws, near Glasgow, on 15 July 1735, was the fourth child of William Tassie, by his wife Margaret, daughter of James McGhie. The Tassies had long resided in Pollokshaws, and were believed to have come from Italy as refugees, and to have settled in Scotland as tanners and skinners. In his early days James Tassie worked as a stonemason, and his father's tombstone in Eastwood churchyard was considered to be his work. While working at his trade he found time to study modelling in the Foulis Academy at Glasgow, and in 1763 he removed to Dublin, where he became an assistant in the laboratory of Henry Quin, the physician, who occupied his leisure in making imitations of antique gems. Working together, Tassie and Quin invented the ‘white enamel composition,’ a vitreous paste in which Tassie afterwards cast his wax medallion-portraits, and which he used for his reproductions of gems. Tassie and his nephew, William [see Tassie, William], kept the secret of this composition, but a recent analysis has shown that it was ‘a very easily fusible glass, essentially a lead potash glass.’ The ingredients were fused at a moderate heat, and when of a pasty consistency received the impression of the mould or matrix. This paste served both for the permanent mould in relief and for the impressions of intaglio gems that were taken from it. Tassie varied the colour of his reproductions with great skill, made them opaque or transparent, and imitated the varied layers of a cameo.
In 1766 Tassie settled in London, and in 1766–7 received a bounty of ten guineas from the Society of Arts for ‘specimens of profiles in paste.’ About 1769 he supplied casts to Wedgwood and Bentley for reproduction in Wedgwood paste, and most of the cameos and intaglios named in Wedgwood's catalogue of 1773 were casts from moulds supplied by him. He prepared the first plaster casts that were taken of the Portland vase. In 1775 Tassie published ‘A Catalogue of Impressions in Sulphur of Antique and Modern Gems,’ from which pastes were made and sold by him. His charge for intaglio pastes suitable for seals and rings was 1s. 6d. to 2s. 6d., and for cameos from 10s. 6d. to 42s. These were much sold by the London jewellers and by himself.
Before 1783 Tassie had been commanded by Catherine, empress of Russia, to furnish her with a complete collection of his coloured pastes of gems and cameos, and from about 1785 he employed as cataloguer the Anglo-German, Rudolph Eric Raspe [q. v.], famous as the creator of ‘Baron Munchausen,’ who issued in 1791 his well-known catalogue of Tassie's collection (‘A Descriptive Catalogue of a General Collection of Ancient and Modern Engraved Gems,’ London, 4to), illustrated by fifty-seven plates. The work, with its supplement, describes fifteen thousand eight hundred items reproduced from the antique, including three hundred gems which the Earl of Carlisle allowed Tassie to reproduce from his cabinet.
Tassie's claim to remembrance as an original artist rests on his portrait-medallions modelled from the life in wax and cast in his hard white enamel paste. These are works of much distinction and charm, and furnish portraits of Adam Smith and many eminent Scotsmen. Tassie exhibited medallions at the Society of British Artists from 1767, and at the Royal Academy from 1769. A collection of over one hundred and fifty medallions, founded upon the bequest made by Tassie's nephew, William, to the board of manufactures, Edinburgh, is now in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. A catalogue of the portrait medallions by the Tassies is included in Gray's ‘James and William Tassie.’
James Tassie died on 1 June 1799, and was buried in the graveyard of the meeting-house known as Collier's Rents in Southwark, afterwards the mission hall of the London Congregational Union. He was a man of modest demeanour and simple character. From 1767 to 1772 Tassie had lived at Great Newport Street; from 1772 to 1777 in Compton Street, Soho; and from 1778 to 1791 at No. 20 Leicester Fields (Leicester Square), a house on the site of the Hotel Cavour. About 1793 he appears to have been assisted in modelling by his younger brother, John.
A half-length portrait, in oils, by David Allan, his fellow-student at the Foulis Academy, is in the National Gallery of Scotland (Tassie bequest); and there is another portrait, in oils, by John Paxton, in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. His nephew William made two portrait-medallions of him (Gray, Tassie, No. ix.)[Gray's James and William Tassie, 1895, 8vo.]