The History of the Cast Courts
When the Architectural Courts - or Cast courts as we now describe them - opened in October 1873, the builder compared the experience of seeing them for the first time with a first glimpse of Mont Blanc, creating one of those 'impressions that can scarcely be effaced'. Since that date these two enormous rooms and the plaster casts they contain have continued to impress the Museum's visitors. Because of a reaction against copying works of art earlier this century, it is only quite recently that the interest of the collection as a whole, the quality of its architectural setting and the significance of many of the individual casts, have again been fully appreciated.
The collection is divided into casts of Northern European and Spanish sculpture and Trajan's column in the west court and casts of Italian monuments in the east. Reproduction of all types - casts, electrotypes, photographs and copy drawings - formed a substantial and highly-regarded part of the Museum's early collections. Similar holdings were then being formed by other European museums but with a few exceptions, such as the Trocadero in Paris (confined to French examples) and the Kongelige Afstobningssamling in Copenhagen, these have since been destroyed or dispersed so that the V&A's collection is a virtually unique example of a remarkable 19th century phenomenon. Even in the 1870s it was apparently the largest and most comprehensive collection of casts of post-classical European sculpture and served as a model for others as widespread as Edinburgh and Pittsburgh. But as well as being notable for its ambitious aims, physical scale and the interiors in which it is place, the collection is becoming increasingly valuable as a record of originals that have either suffered the over-zealous attentions of later restorers or severely deteriorated through the pollution of more than a century.
The technical process of plaster casting
The first stage in the production of a cast is the taking of plaster moulds from the original, using a separating agent to prevent the plaster sticking to the surface. Since all sculpture, other than that executed in very low relief, has projections and undercutting these moulds were invariably made in many pieces. The piece moulds would then be enclosed in an outer casing, the interior coated with a separating agent and the wet plaster poured in. The divisions between the piece moulds produces a network of casting lines on the completed plaster cast. As the number of these lines shows, the casting process demanded specialist skills and the production of a cast such as the Portico de la Gloria executed by the London firm of Brucciani, represents a formidable technical achievement.
Earlier cast collections
The use of piece moulds for the reproduction of famous Greek and Roman sculptures had been adopted as early as the 16th century when Leone Leoni assembled in his house in Milan casts of 'as many of the most celebrated works… carved and cast, antique and modern as he was able to obtain anywhere'. Cast collections of any size, however, did not become common before the 18th century. In 1662 a set of casts from moulds made for the French Academy in Rome were sent to the Hague Academy and by 1758 young artists in London were able to draw from the casts in the gallery opened by the Duke of Richmond. The formation of extensive and systematic collections of antique cases took place during the second half of the century and by 1800 galleries comparable to the Antikensaal at Mannheim which opened Goethe's eyes to the beauties of classical sculpture could be seen in Berlin, Paris, Vienna and elsewhere.
While the occasional 16th century figure group by Giambologna might be included these collection were concerned almost exclusively with classical sculpture. In the early 19th century, however, the growing antiquarian interest in medieval architecture and sculpture led to casts being made of outstanding national monuments, particularly in France and Germany. By 1834 a significant collection of French medieval and Renaissance casts was to be found at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris though the national collection of casts as the Trocadero was not established until 1879. In Germany plasters of several notable early 16th century works such as the apostles from the St Sebaldus shrine and the 'Nuremberg Madonna' (both represented at the V&A) were added to collections of classical casts as early as 1823; while in the 1830s the antiquarian Hans von Aufess was gathering together casts of German medieval sculpture that in 1852 became the basis of the Germanisches Nationalmuseum in Nuremberg. In all cases the aim was the illustrate outstanding national achievements in architecture and sculpture. By contrast, the V&A's collection was seen from its inception as international in scope, and this remains one of its most striking characteristics.
The Museum's early acquisitions
When the Museum of Manufactures (as the V&A was first known) was established in 1852 casts were already regarded as an essential part of the collection. The 'improvement of public taste in Design' and the 'application of fine art to objects of utility' which were among the Museum's primary aims meant that casts of architectural and ornamental work were necessary educational tools which were regarded as 'superior to drawings, as they render the whole treatment to the mind as palpably as possible. A collection of 'cases of ornamental art of all periods and countries' was being assembled from 1841 onwards by the Government School of Design and this was taken over by the Museum when it was installed at Marlborough House. The 1550 examples were systematically classified and a catalogue undertaken with illustrations by members of 'the female class for wood engraving' while the Museum continued the School of Design's practice of issuing casts to provincial Schools of Art.
Lack of space appears to have inhibited the addition of new examples but following the move to South Kensington in 1857 the cast collection of the Architectural Museum, founded by the architect Gilbert Scott and others, was taken on loan. This was particularly strong in examples of Gothic architectural ornament which were displayed in series with the Museums' own casts. It was hoped that this would become part of the Museum's permanent holdings so that 'the country would have at a comparatively small cost what has long been desired, a national museum of architecture and architectural decoration which could scarcely fail to be of the greatest service in an educational point of view, whether as affecting the progress of art in its noblest works or the improvement of tastes in the application of art to the production of our manufacturers'. However, in 1869 the collection was removed to the new Architectural Museum in Tufton Street only returning to South Kensington in 1916.
A more permanent addition to the collection of Gothic casts was made, however, in 1861 with the transfer from Government stores on 3,200 plasters of architectural details that has been cast as models for the carvers employed in the construction of the Houses of Parliament in the 1830s. This somewhat erratic approach to the collecting of casts was superseded in the 1860s by the clearer and more purposeful policy reflected in the lists drawn up of works considered suitable for casting - the contents include 'Chartres Cathedral; all that is unrestored on the outside' and 'All the works of Mino de Fiesole and the Robbias' - and a series of acquisitions that is impressively ambitious in its range and scale.
The cast collections & victorian taste
The casts acquired during the 1860s and 70s are especially revealing when compared with the original works acquired at this time since they represent the aesthetic standards and art-historical interests on which such purchases were based. Although these acquisitions of reproductions were determined partly by the availability of casts and the opportunities of exchange with other institutions the examples collected indicate certain clear preferences for styles of particular periods and countries that change as the second half of the century proceeds. These shifts in emphasis within the cast collection form an index of developments in High Victorian taste.
The earliest acquisitions, including the holdings of the School of Design, were - with the exception of the classical casts - drawn largely from French and Italian Renaissance originals and, in keeping with the early aims of both School and Museum, consisted largely of ornamental details. By the early 1860s the collecting policy had broadened with figure sculpture - albeit from architectural contexts predominating in the acquisitions of the next two decades. The medieval and Renaissance periods continued to be most favoured but there appears to have been some shift of emphasis towards the Romanesque and 'Saracenic' rather than the Gothic. Mannerist and baroque sculpture was represented by only a very few examples, among them Mercury and Psyche by the early 17th century Netherlandish sculptor Adriaen de Vries. However the collection did include several neoclassical works, most notably a cast in 40 pieces of Thervaldsen's frieze illustrating Alexander's entry into Babylon, given by the Danish Commissioners of the International Exhibition of 1862.
Although cases of some major English and Scottish Gothic monuments were acquired - including the Grey Tomb from York Minster, the so-called Pretice Pillar from Roslin Chapel and the Minstrels Gallery from Exeter - the most distinctive feature of the casts during this period is their international range, a quality also reflected in the Museum's collection of original works. French Renaissance sculpture, such as Goujon's reliefs from the Fountain of the Innocents, continued to be added but special efforts were made to obtain casts of Italian sculpture. The earliest major cast of Italian figure sculpture - Michelangelo's David - was in fact acquired by chance in 1858 when it was sent unprompted by the Grand Duke of Tuscany to Queen Victoria in an attempt to placate English anger at his refusal to allow the National Gallery to export Chirlandiao's Madonna Enthroned.
By 1864 an extensive campaign to acquire Italian casts was underway and Mr Franchi, a London craftsman specialising in plaster casts and electrotypes, was sent to Italy to task casts of the Giovanni Pisano pulpit at Pisa. This sustained programme of reproducing Italian Renaissance works was led by J C Robinson to whose energy, knowledge and judgment owe the foundation of its outstanding collection of Italian sculpture, the most comprehensive outside Italy.
The close relationship between the collection of original works and the making of reproductions is also reflected in the Spanish acquisitions made in 1864-65 as a result of several extensive tours of Spain by Robinson. From these came not only the great St George altarpiece by Marzal de Sas now at the foot of the stairs to the library but also casts of monuments such as the late 15th century cloister of San Juan de los Reyes, Toledo, and - most outstanding of all - the late 12th century Portico de La Gloria, Santiago de Compostela. The casting of this immense structure was an operation involving a sea voyage beset by numerous hazards - storms and fumigation against cholera included - as well as protracted and delicate negotiations with the ecclesiastical authorities.
German sculpture of around 1500 - the so-called Durer period - also figures prominently amongst the cast acquisitions of the 60s and 70s. The St Sebaldus shrine in Nuremberg, cast by Peter Vischer the Elder, was regarded in Germany from the early 19th century as a great national achievement. The South Kensington example was purchased in 1869 but fifteen years earlier the acquisition of a cast was being urged by the architect Sydney Smirke who considered it 'as full of beauty and ingenuity as it is elaborate being the greatest work (in metal) of the greatest master of that branch of art, and executed in the highest period of that art, and in a city more celebrated than any other in the world for that kind of art'.
The International Convention of 1867
Although many of the casts acquired during the 1860 were produced by Franchi and Brucciani for the Museum or purchased from French of German firms, others were obtained through exchange with other museums. Henry Cole, the Museum's first Director, was quick to see the advantages of such an arrangement. By 1864 plans for an international exchange of copies of 'the finest works of art which each country possesses' were drawn up and the Foreign Office's help enlisted to obtain from European governments lists of major works in their possession. This ambitious scheme was enthusiastically pursued by Cole and culminated in the 'International Convention of promoting universally Reproductions of Works of Art' which Cole persuaded 15 European princes to sign as they visited the Paris International Exhibition.
The entries in Cole's Diary at this time vividly illustrate the determination and energy that lay behind the Convention and indeed the formation of the Museum's collections as a whole during the 1860 and 70s; '1st June' Crown Prince (of Prussia) signed the Convention at 8.45 ' wd get the Czarevitch to sign Convention', '24 June ' To Prince of Saxony who signed ' Price Napoleon who sd he wd sign ' & wd ask Prince Humbert (of Italy) to sign'. As a result of the Convention the acquisition of Casts reached its height in the early 1870s and the collection began to assume the appearance and scale that made such an impression when the Architectural Courts were opened in 1873.
The Architectural Courts
From the Museum's foundation the space available for the display of the cast collection was regarded as inadequate. In 1858, following the move to South Kensington, the antique and Renaissance casts were displayed in the West corridor and the Gothic examples - including those of the Architectural Museum - on the gallery above , both sections being 'illustrated with modes of edifices and numerous photographs showing the position of sculptural details of work'. By the mid 1860s the growing collection was rather more satisfactorily shown in the recently completed North Court but when the Portico de la Gloria arrived in 1866 it had to be shown in several parts scattered through the building.
With the opening in July 1873 of the Architectural Courts designed by General Henry Scott the collection could at last be shown to proper effect. The classical casts were now placed in a separate room (today used for temporary exhibitions) while the Northern European Italian and Indian plasters were divided between the gigantic West and East courts. The galleries were used for the display of casts of architectural details and the central corridor contained reproductions of mosaics.
The designation of these rooms as 'Architectural Courts' is significant since they contained not only casts of architectural sculpture and ornament but also original works, most notably the early 17th century rood loft from s'Hertogenbosch, and it was felt that both 'the original works and the reproductions will gain by this arrangement'. Also included were architectural models and on the north wall of the east court an enormous diagram executed in incised plaster after a drawing by C.R. Cockerell showing 'to scale the comparative dimensions and forms of the principal buildings of the world'.
Plans were drawn up in 1870, by the end of the year the roof had been added and early in the following year the completion of the magnificent interior had begun. The ambitiousness of the building's scale is matched by the boldness of its decoration. The west court, now redecorated in its original colours, was painted in purple-red below the balcony and olive-green above while immediately below the brackets was a band of strapwork containing 'names of cities celebrated in the history of art arranged alphabetically from Ahmedabad to Zurich'. A similar band with names of artists ran around the room a little above ground level.
The colours and some of these details are shown in a watercolour -probably a sketch of the interior before it was completed - which also includes the glass mosaic panels designed by F W Moody and executed by Powell and Sons of Whitefriars, that lit the brick vaults below. These like the mosaic floor surround them do not survive but the mosaic of the central corridor executed by the women prisoners of Woking prison - and so described by Cole as the 'opus criminale' - has recently been conserved and cleaned. The decoration of the courts was completed by a series of blinds - intended to be replaced by stained glass showing famous artists.
When the courts opened they of course attracted much attention though reaction in the press was rather mixed. The Builder was enthusiastic and took the view that 'the boldness of the idea, the height of the apartments, the magnitude of many of the objects with which they are filled and the beauty of others, all concur to produce a lasting effect'. Some comments about the decoration were less favourable. The Art Journal for example considered that the new constructions in decoration and colour were 'more utterly inharmonious in the strange combination of tints, than we should have considered possible, except in the forms and polychromy of an early attempt to bid defiance to every known principle of composition and colour'. It also regretted the inclusion of Trajan's Column which had the 'effect of crowding out of sight those (casts) of more sensible proportions'. There was, however, general enthusiasm for the other notable casts among them Adam Kraft's Schreyer monument of 1497 - 'a marvellous example of painstaking detail and expression' - and the Portico de la Gloria the possession of which was applauded as a 'glory to the museum'.
The cast collection after 1873
By 1873 the most impressive casts were already in the collection, with the exception of the Architectural Museum's examples which were to return to South Kensington in 1916. Additions continued to be made, however, including a series of early medieval English and Irish crosses cast around 1900. Throughout this period covetous eyes were also turned towards the extensive cast collection assembled for the Crystal Palace and from shortly after 1900 energetic attempts were made to bring the best of these to South Kensington and so form a truly national museum of casts. But despite these efforts none of the casts left the Crystal Palace until 1938 when, following the disastrous fire, the few surviving examples came to the Museum.
By this date the cast collection had long ceased to inspire the enthusiasm it had in the 1870s. Considerable doubts had arisen about the effects of the casting process on the originals and a strong reaction had begun against the use of casts in art schools. In 1866 when Brucciani took his cast of the Portico de la Gloria he received a certificate from the Dean stating that the work had been done without the slightest damage to the original. Seven years earlier, however, William Burges had complained of the damage done to the original colouring of sculpture by casting and by the late 1870s Wilhelm von Bode, later Director of the Berlin museums, was arguing that a small fragment of an original was of far greater value than a complete cast of a masterpiece. By the 1920s this attitude had become widespread among curators and art historians and the antipathy to casts was strengthened by the rise of the modern movement in painting and sculpture, and the rejection of the tradition of academic teaching where plaster copies played an essential role.
The cast collection today
With the revival of interest in late 19th century art and the reassessment of the Victorian's achievements the importance of the cast collection can now be seen in its proper perspective. The west court, with Trajan's Column and the Portico de la Gloria in their restored interior, can be recognised as a vivid expression of High Victorian taste. But the casts are valuable in other ways. In the 1980s, as in the 1870s, they are used continuously for teaching since they give an impression of scale and three-dimensional qualities that no photograph can convey.
Since the 19th century they have acquired a new significance. In a few cases, such as the late 15th century Lubeck relief of Christ washing the Apostles' feet, the original has been destroyed and the cast is unique record of a lost work. More often the cast shows details no longer to be see on the original which has been badly restored, as with the relief from S. Maria dei Miracoli, Brescia. In the case of the tympanum from Hildesheim comparison with the original shows the effect on the surface of the carving of over 100 years of environmental pollution. Despite efforts to reduce such pollution and to protect outstanding monuments this process is likely to continue so that the casts will become an increasingly valuable record of lost or damaged works, as well as an impressive and intriguing reflection of the taste of the curators and the public of the 1870s.
Written by Malcolm Baker, 1982, and published in the V&A Masterpieces series. Revised 2007