The collecting of plaster casts reached the height of its popularity in the mid to late 19th century. At that time few people in the UK could afford to travel to mainland Europe, so museums acquired reproductions of important monuments and works of art to complement their collections. Art schools collected plaster casts so students could study and draw from the best examples of classical and Renaissance sculpture. Individuals and collectors bought casts for their own personal interest or to decorate their homes.
The South Kensington Museum (as the V&A was originally known) was at the forefront of this enthusiasm for collecting plaster cast reproductions and electrotypes. It obtained them through a variety of means.
Many were gifts from other institutions, or came via the Convention for Promoting Universal Reproductions of Works of Art. This was the brainchild of Henry Cole, the Museum's first director, who saw the great educational benefits in amassing a comprehensive collection of casts. In 1867 Cole encouraged fifteen European princes, including Albert Edward, Prince of Wales and Prince Jérôme Bonaparte of France, younger brother of Napoleon, to sign up to an agreement that would establish a formal procedure for the exchange of casts between European museums.
Other casts were bought or commissioned from the many specialist manufacturers of the day, whose well-illustrated catalogues included what were felt to be key works in the history of art. Given the particular interest in obtaining reproductions from the Italian Renaissance, it is not surprising that most of these cast manufacturers were based in Italy. The manufacturer most widely represented in the V&A's cast collection is Oronzio Lelli, whose Florence-based firm produced high quality work from all periods.
By the 1850s the copying of works of art had become a lucrative business all over Europe. Auguste Gerber was one of the manufacturers active in Germany, and a number of Anglo-Italian businesses were established in London, most notably those set up by Giovanni Franchi and Domenico Brucciani.
In producing these reproductions, they used piece-moulds, that is to say, individual moulds of each part of an original object. These moulds could be re-used so multiple copies of the same cast could be made. With the use of a 'reducing machine' it was also possible to make casts in a range of sizes, or even to reproduce small details of the original object, such as the eyes, lips and nose of Michelangelo's 'David'.
Casts were sometimes commissioned directly from the formatore (an Italian term used to describe the specialist Italian mould- and cast-makers). Domenico Brucciani was one such formatore who had special links with both the British Museum and the South Kensington Museum. Born in Lucca in 1815, he set up business in London, establishing a Gallery of Casts in Covent Garden by 1837. His most illustrious commission for the South Kensington Museum was the casting of the Pórtico de la Gloria, the 12th-century façade of the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela, which he did in 1866. This monument was considered so important that when the Cast Courts (then called the Architectural Courts) were built in 1873 they were specially designed to accommodate the whole 18-metre width of the enormous cast.
Brucciani's business continued after his death in 1880, but failed when the demand for plaster casts declined in the early 20th century. The company was taken over by the Board of Education in 1922 and run by the V&A as a museum service, renamed the Department for the Sale of Casts. In 1951, however, financial losses forced its closure.
The V&A's cast collection is an excellent example of the artistic taste of Victorian curators and audiences. It is also unique. Many other collections were destroyed or broken up during the first half of the 20th century, when the value of casts was questioned and they were seen as inferior substitutes for original works. Museums that kept their reproductions were often unable to display them.