Victorian art world – recast by the V&A

The Cast Courts at the V&A, two of the museum’s original 1850s galleries, have reopened after a seven year programme, restored and refurbished as they were 160 years ago.

The sign at the entrance to the Cast Courts announces: “You are walking into the 19thcentury”. They are the basis of the founding principle of the V&A, to teach the best of art and design by example, “to inspire artists, designers and artisans to supply better designs to Britain’s factories”.

Over decades in the mid-19th century the V&A, or the South Kensington Museum as it first was, collected or had made casts of some of the great works in the history of sculpture and architecture. Two great courts were built to house them, with domed glass roofs to allow for the height of Trajan’s Column, even in two halves.

The recreation of the column in plaster was one of the wonders of Victorian engineering. The original, 30 metres tall, had been built in about 101 AD to celebrate the emperor’s victory of the Dacians, or Romanians, and in the 18th and 19th centuries it was a cynosure for tourists, with Trajan’s heroic story spiralling around the Doric column in exquisite pictograms. In 1861 Napoleon III commissioned a cast of it and it took a year before the casts could be sent to Paris for electrotyping, the chemical method of creating exact metal moulds to create precise copies, perfected in the late 1830s. In 1864 Henry Cole, the South Kensington Museum’s founder and first director, ordered a second cast for London, at a cost of £2,498 11s 2d – or about £222,000 today. But it was not until 1873 that the courts were built to enable both halves of the column to be shown.


Inside Trajan's Column. All Images courtesy V&A. 

Now cleaned and restored they are a record of the column as it hasn’t been seen for 100 years and more, because of the traffic pollution that has corroded the original. And visitors can now see how the cast column was built, the base being opened for the first time to the public – it had been accessible to staff as “cuddling corners”, said senior curator Angus Patterson.

But the mystery of the lost Trajan has not been solved. The statue on top had not been included in the casting process, perhaps because in 1861 it was no longer Trajan. The figure of the emperor crowning his glorious career somehow went missing in the Middle Ages – it has never been found - and in the 16thcentury it was replaced by a bronze figure of St Peter. Even so, amongthe 2,662 figures on the spiral Trajan appears no fewer than 58 times.

The collections were made to delight as well as instruct, and now in the original polychrome the casts of the Angevins – including Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitaine and Richard I – from Fontevraux Abbey in France lie side by side once more. One of the first acquisitions was a cast of the remarkable tympanum of the Portico de la Gloria at the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela, made in the 1100s and one of Europe’s finest examples of Romanesque sculpture.

The courts are now painted in the terracotta and gold colours they originally had, and the narrow gallery that divides the two courts – now called the Ruddock Family Cast Court and Weston Cast Court to honour sponsors – is given over to a detailed didactic on the processes and techniques of copying great works of art, from cast-making and electrotyping from the 19thcentury to modern 3D printing. And the floor of this area has also been restored – mosaics made in 1873 by the female prisoners to designs by Francis Wollaston Moody. Henry Cole cllazewd themn his “Opus Criminale”.

The highlight of the Weston Court is the cast of Michelangelo’s David, 5.7 metres tall and interesting as much for the cast makers’ techniques as for its intrinsic beauty. And discreetly hanging in a box on the back of its plinth is a small monument to the sensibilities of the original curators – a plaster fig leaf, made by D. Brucciani & Co in about 1857,which was to be hung over the figure’s genitals when royalty visited (even though Victoria and Albert’s private collections contained many nudes, both male and female).

After the Victorian age interest in plaster casts faded, and in the 1920s and 30s there was even a move to remove the displays altogether, as they were from the British Museum. But, said the V&A’s director Tristram Hunt, there has been a revival of interest with the new discoveries in copying techniques which make the 19thcentury efforts both admirable and instructive again.

But, as the museum’s senior sculpture curator Holly Trusted says, there is also a theatrical magic about these disparate works of historical art crowding around one. “Suddenly we are standing next to great monumental objects projecting their own histories, whether from classical Rome, Renaissance Italy, medieval France, Romanesque Spain or 12thcentury Scandinavia” she says. “You are within a museum gallery, but simultaneously transported to see terrifically famous and exceptionally beautiful works of art from thousands of miles away”.


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