There are three plaster casts of early medieval sculptures in the V&A Cast Courts with a Scottish connection: the cross-slab from Nigg (Highland), and tall free-standing crosses from Ruthwell (Dumfries and Galloway) and Bewcastle (Cumbria, in north-western England).
My research shows that the choice of these is revealing about what the nineteenth-century South Kensington Museum was interested in collecting from Britain. It tells us about the relationship between the London museum and its Scottish branch, the Edinburgh Museum of Science and Art. It also invites reflection on the difference between what these ‘metropolitan’ museums wanted to display and what interested the so-called ‘provincial’ Scottish museums, in Glasgow, Dundee and Aberdeen.
Why Ruthwell, Bewcastle and Nigg?
The Ruthwell Cross and Bewcastle Cross are comparable monuments created in the first half of the eighth century AD in areas that were then Anglo-Saxon. They probably stood near important early churches. Some of the most important sculptural survivals from this period in Britain and arguably Europe, these stones intrigued early antiquarians with their complex Christian iconography, and the unique Latin and Anglo-Saxon inscriptions on the Ruthwell Cross. The inscriptions include an Old English poem (The Dream of the Rood) in which the cross speaks of its experience of Christ’s crucifixion. The originals can be visited in Ruthwell church – the Cross was one of the earliest monuments to come into state care, in 1887 – and in the graveyard at Bewcastle.
The Nigg cross-slab is Pictish. Picts, the native people who lived in north-eastern Scotland in the post-Roman period, are best known for the range and quality of their stone carving. The cross-slab comes from the site of the church at Nigg, where you can visit it today.
George and Isabel Henderson describe it in The Art of the Picts as ‘the supreme masterpiece of Pictish art’, and affirm that it ‘deserves a place second to none in the history of Western medieval art’. It possibly adorned the inside of a bishop’s chapel and is one of a series of large and spectacular late eighth-century Christian monuments that bound the Tarbat peninsula, centring on what was a major Pictish monastery and estate centre at Portmahomack. The Tarbat Discovery Centre and Pictish Trail on this peninsula are truly worth a visit.
Who caused the casts to be made?
The South Kensington Museum and its Edinburgh and Dublin branches often pooled copies of the casts they produced, and other museums requested copies. Being able to offer casts of important sculptures from moulds that you had commissioned gave museums a kudos in a world in which the circulation of reproductions was the fashion. The Nigg, Ruthwell and Bewcastle casts were the initiative of the Scottish museum because it wanted them for its own collection. As exceptionally fine and well-preserved monuments, Ruthwell and Nigg were selected as ‘way-marks in the history of Early Christian art in these islands’, ‘two of the most remarkable of the ancient monuments of Scotland’. The Edinburgh museum (later Royal Scottish Museum, now part of National Museums Scotland) destroyed most of its plaster casts during the twentieth century when they were no longer thought to be important, but it kept the moulds that it had commissioned. These have recently come to light again.
Ruthwell was cast first, in 1894 by Edinburgh-based formatore (plaster worker) Leopoldo Arrighi. Seeing this cast inspired leading antiquarian J Romilly Allen to persuade his friend, the Director of the Edinburgh Museum of Science and Art, to also copy Nigg. Edinburgh-based Joseph Cavagnari made the cast later in 1894. The art historian Professor Gerard Baldwin Brown was a keen advocate of industrial museums and the value of plaster casts in teaching art, and he later encouraged the Royal Scottish Museum to copy Bewcastle because of its parallels to Ruthwell. Cavagnari was sent there in 1913; the Royal Scottish Museum made a further copy for the V&A in 1922 (delivered in 1923). At the same time the V&A sought advice from Scotland on how to paint the Ruthwell and Bewcastle Crosses to exactly match the colour of the originals.
Why no more material from Scotland?
Both the South Kensington Museum and its Edinburgh branch wanted to display representative examples of good art from across the world. It can be argued that Edinburgh did not display much early medieval Scottish sculpture because the neighbouring National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland already had a large collection of originals and replicas, but South Kensington was not keen on displaying much British or Irish material. As Baldwin Brown observed, this was ‘not a place where national self-love is flattered’. This nineteenth-century collecting policy has had implications for what is now on display in the Scottish Design Galleries at V&A Dundee.
But although what we now know as the V&A was not particularly keen on acquiring copies of British and Irish sculptures, it is the only museum to have preserved and still display these Scottish copies of Nigg, Ruthwell and Bewcastle.
These first casts spawned a wider demand for copies. With its international significance, museums in Glasgow, Dundee, Durham, Manchester and Brussels asked the Edinburgh museum for copies of the Ruthwell Cross, keeping Arrighi busy. Carlisle Museum and Durham Cathedral purchased a copy of Bewcastle in 1914 and 1916. Some of these still survive. Manchester Metropolitan Museum borrowed Edinburgh’s moulds in the 1950s to make copies of both the Anglo-Saxon crosses.
Meantime in Scotland, local museums were also creating extensive plaster cast collections, encouraged to do so by advice and grants from the V&A’s Circulation Department. Unlike in London, they wanted to start collections of local, ‘Celtic’ sculpture. By this they meant the art of the Picts and their Scottish neighbours, popularised by the publication in 1903 of The Early Christian Monuments of Scotland, and decades of the scholarship that underpinned this. The first large collection was created for the 1901 Glasgow International Exhibition, which the museums in Dundee and Aberdeen emulated in 1904 and 1905. Both Dundee and Aberdeen obtained copies of Nigg, the former from London-based formatori, D Brucciani and Co.
I have not been able to discover if this London-based company had gone to Nigg and created their own mould, acquired Cavagnari’s mould, or copied the cast already in the V&A, but Nigg became one of the casts that could be purchased from Brucciani’s catalogue of casts for sale (the Royal Scottish Museum purchased a copy from them in 1932 when their 1894 cast broke in an accident).
With Professor David Clarke, I’m planning to work on a full biography of the early medieval plaster casts in National Museums Scotland, and we are very grateful to the Henry Moore Foundation for its support of our pilot work.
Further reading: See also ‘Up close with the V&A’s fabulous casts of early Christian monuments’ by V&A Sculpture Conservator Johanna Puisto
The V&A is very grateful to Allchurches Trust for generously supporting the conservation of the crosses referenced in this blog post.