When the Architectural Courts – or Cast Courts as they are now known – opened in 1873, The Builder magazine compared the experience of seeing them to a first glimpse of Mont Blanc, creating one of those 'impressions that can scarcely be effaced'. Since then, these two enormous rooms and the reproductions they contain have continued to impress and inspire visitors to the Museum.
For centuries, antiquarian interest in world architecture and sculpture led to reproductions – or copies – being made of outstanding national monuments and notable sculptures. When the Museum was founded, it collected and displayed reproductions of great art and architecture from across the world in order to offer objects for study and tell a complete story of the history of art and design.
Casts are made by placing several plaster moulds upon the surface of the original structure. Once hardened and removed, the moulds are then enclosed in an outer casing, the interior coated with a separating agent and the wet plaster poured in. When set, the pieces are then assembled and the joints and surfaces finished off, to make a complete reproduction of the original work. The finished product – as well as being a formidable technical achievement in its own right – enables admirers to study faithful reproductions of important monuments and works of art.
Casts formed a substantial and highly regarded part of the V&A's early collections. 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. The pieces were regarded as 'superior to drawings', and students (including at one point the 'female class for wood engraving') made use of the casts for sketching and drawing practice. The Government School of Design began collecting casts of ornamental art of all periods and countries from 1837. This collection was taken over by the Museum of Manufactures when it was installed at Marlborough House.
The earliest acquisitions, including the holdings of the Government School of Design, were classical casts as well as ornamental architectural details from French and Italian Renaissance originals. By the 1860s the collecting policy had broadened to include figurative sculpture. When the collection moved to South Kensington in 1857 to form the 'South Kensington Museum' (now the V&A), the space available for their display was regarded as inadequate – the antique and Renaissance casts were displayed in a corridor and the Gothic examples on the gallery above. Many monumental casts, including the 12th-century Pórtico de la Gloria from the Cathedral at Santiago de Compostela in Spain, which arrived in 1866, had to be shown in several parts scattered throughout the building.
The Museum commissioned new purpose-built galleries to solve the problem.
Designed by General Henry Scott, the 'Architectural Courts' opened in 1873, at last allowing the collection to be shown to proper effect. The Courts were built to a height of 25 metres, specifically to fit the two enormous plaster casts of Trajan's Column, which were acquired in 1864, made from a cast commissioned by Emperor Napoleon III. These copies were added to the vast displays of architectural models, electrotypes and photographs. Original objects were also shown alongside, most notably the enormous early 17th-century marble choir screen from the Cathedral of St John, 's-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands.
Originally, the Northern European, Italian and Indian casts were spread across the West and East courts, with the classical casts placed in a separate room. The central corridor between the two courts was reserved for reproductions of mosaics. The West court was painted purple-red below the balcony and olive green above it, whereas in the East court, the colours were reversed. Stencilled decoration of the names of cities celebrated in the history of art 'from Ahmedabad to Zurich' – designed and painted by Reuben Townroe – ran around the walls of the West court, while a similar band with names of artists ran around the room a little above ground level.
For Londoners without the means of travelling abroad, these casts provided a fascinating glimpse into the marvels of European sculpture. One of the earliest major casts of Italian figure sculpture – Michelangelo's David – sets the tone for the scale and breadth of the objects to be found in the courts. David, which was constructed by the Florentine cast-maker Clemente Papi in the 1850s, is more than five metres tall and was created from hundreds of pieces of a plaster mould taken directly from the original.
Acquired by chance, it was sent to Queen Victoria by Leopold II, Grand Duke of Tuscany, supposedly in an attempt to placate the British following his refusal to allow the National Gallery to export from Florence a painting by Domenico Ghirlandaio. The Queen, shocked by the nudity of the cast, requested that a suitably proportioned fig leaf be made (by the London firm D. Brucciani & Co), and hung on the cast using a pair of hooks when dignitaries visited. Today the plaster fig leaf is a popular exhibit on its own.
Throughout the years following the turn of the 20th century, the V&A continued to add to its cast collection, but educators and museum administrators soon began to doubt the effectiveness and importance of reproductions. Many worried about the damage done to the originals during the casting process, and others argued that modern painting and sculpture schools relied less heavily on academic teaching using casts. A report in 1928 given to the V&A's Advisory Council proposed that the Museum dispose of the cast collection in its entirety, suggesting that it was actually 'injurious to students'. Displaying Trajan's Column in two sections, for example, would give 'an utterly wrong idea of the effect of the column as it is'. The advice was thankfully disregarded, and today the Cast Courts are a firm visitor favourite.
The importance of the cast collection has increased over time. In a few cases, such as the late 15th-century 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 that can no longer be seen on the original due to poor restoration, pollution or weathering. The casts are also once again being used for teaching as they give an impression of scale and three-dimensional qualities that no photograph can convey. Many similar holdings formed by other European museums have since been destroyed or dispersed, making the V&A's collection a rare survival of a remarkable 19th-century phenomenon.
In November 2014, the east Cast Court, Room 46b, was renovated and a similar project is currently underway on the west side. Room 46b has been renamed The Weston Cast Court in recognition of The Garfield Weston Foundation's longstanding and generous support of the V&A. The Weston Cast Court features more than 60 of the V&A's finest 19th-century reproductions of Italian Renaissance monuments. Highlights from this gallery include Michelangelo's David; the seven-and-a-half-metre tall set of electrotype doors known as the Gates of Paradise at Florence Cathedral; a plaster cast of a pulpit from Pisa Cathedral by Giovanni Pisano and the monumental cast of Jacopo della Quercia’s great arch from the Basilica of San Petronio, Bologna.
When the west court is finished, the Museum's spectacular Architecture Courts will have been returned to their original magnificence. Visitors will once again be able to view the treasures of Room 46a, including the mighty Trajan's Column, the 12th-century Pórtico de la Gloria and many other historic casts, from medieval reliefs from Spain, to Celtic crosses and major French and German Renaissance sculptures. Highlights include the 16th-century tomb by Peter Vischer from Nuremberg, figures and reliefs by the South German sculptor Tilman Riemenschneider, as well as works by the French artist Jean Goujon.
Conservation work carried out in the Cast Courts has also included extensive research into the original decorative scheme of the galleries, reinstating the Cast Courts' original colours, architectural details and finishes. The 19th-century ceramic tiled floor (executed by the women inmates of Woking Female Prison - and so described by original Museum Director Henry Cole as the 'opus criminale') has also been restored and repairs to the glazed roof, ceiling and walls have returned the court to its original splendour. The exhibits have been reconfigured with new interpretation to provide a wider understanding of the history of the objects and reveal the processes behind the creation of the casts. No doubt Henry Cole would be delighted at the display.
Audio descriptions of historic locations in the Museum are available for blind and partially sighted visitors to listen to online at home or during a visit to the V&A.