Angus Patterson, Senior Curator in the V&A’s Department of Sculpture, Metalwork,Ceramics & Glass, talks The Net Gallery through the rise, fall and resurrection of the museum’s glorious Cast Courts.
Why do you think the casts ‘fell out of fashion’ in the mid-20thcentury?
Plaster casts and electrotypes reached the height of their popularity in the mid-to-late 19th century, when they were used as artists’ models in museums and schools of design. Only a few could afford to visit the original iconic monuments across Europe. The development of international travel via shipping lines and railways enabled copies to be made in places all over the globe and brought to London. Locally, trains and trams allowed those that could not afford to travel overseas to come to London and see works of art and architecture form around the world under one roof. The decline in the copy’s reputation set in from around the 1920s when museums like the V&A decided to stop using replicas as teaching aids.
When the museum was first set up, part of its remit was to help drive economic growth by ensuring good design found its way into factories. Form and ornament, rather than authenticity and construction, were the priority, so if originals were unavailable, copies would be acquired instead. A number of factors, including the emergence of the arts and crafts movement, shifted the focus more to original works of historic interest by the 1920s. As a result, many copies were sold off, destroyed or relegated to the basement.
Unfortunately, during the 20thcentury, the museum’s copies also came to be associated with fakes, and indeed until 10 years ago the Fakes Gallery at the V&A ran between the Cast Courts. This always grated with me! The museum’s copies have nothing to do with fakes. They were intended to instruct rather than to deceive.
Given their decline, what was behind the V&A’s decision to redevelop the Cast Courts?
There were several reasons for redeveloping the courts, some of which were practical – for example, the roof was leaking and needed fixing – while others stemmed from a desire to reintroduce the casts to a new audience. Research had shown us that while visitors entering these galleries were initially overwhelmed by the scale of the Courts and some of the exhibits, such as the 35-metre-high Trajan’s Column, once they discovered that the pieces were copies, they felt disappointed and wandered off. We were keen to address this when carrying out the refurbishment and get the message across that although the exhibits are copies, they are pieces of historic interest in their own right, with a story to tell. That story has a particular resonance for modern audiences with the revival of interest in copying brought about by the digital revolution.
How did you set about meeting these challenges?
We wanted to retain the initial excitement that visitors felt on entering the galleries but flatten out the trough of disappointment they felt when realising they were looking at copies. We removed the Fakes Gallery and replaced it with a gallery that sets the Cast Courts into a historic context by explaining the museum’s interest in copying from its earliest days. Copies are part of the museum’s DNA. Each has its own uniqueness and individuality that is quite separate from the original work it depicts. We kept the heavy interpretation in the central gallery so that the Courts themselves could still function as historic spaces. These galleries are our historic house moment where we can take visitors back in time. We made extensive use of modern technology, such as 3D scanning and drone footage, to reveal the scale of the exhibits, alongside blogs to explain the work undertaken.
The museum’s copies included not just casts but also electrotypes, photographs, brass rubbings, waxes and drawings. You can see these also in the gallery. Electrotypes, copies made of copper electrolytically deposited into moulds of original works and then gilded or plated, also by electrolysis, were, like photographs, revolutionary combinations of science, art and industry that the Museum harnessed from the beginning. In the 19thcentury this technology was received like an alchemy. We were much quicker in the 19thcentury to work with new copying technology than we have been with digital scanning and 3D printing. Photography and electrotyping were both developed in the 1840s and by 1853 the Museum had workshops for both.
Photography has been a vital inclusion. Seeing casts and electrotypes as 3-dimensional photographs really helps them make sense. They are not perfect replicas but accurate 3-dimensional impressions of the outside surfaces of original works. Questions around what we mean by copy, replica, facsimile and reproduction kept us up at night for far too long.
What did the refurbishment of the courts and the conservation and restoration of the casts involve?
The entire refurbishment programme, which began in 2011 and took the form of a three-tiered programme, involving the restoration of the space itself, the conservation of the collection and the development of new displays, has certainly been a massive privilege to work on. We were keen to return the space to its original colour scheme with a matt finish and, thankfully, the gloopy black lino flooring put down after the Second World War was at last removed! The original ceramic floor tiles are a similar shade to the walls, which gives the courts a sense of unity and helps to provide visitors with a better sense of perspective, since the casts now appear anchored to the floor.
The conservation work on the casts was always going to be a colossal task. For about 18 months the court containing the cast of Trajan’s Column contained nine storeys of scaffolding which the conservators used to reach the top of the column and then work downwards. While working on the pieces, the team also took the opportunity to document details that caught their eye, such as the process of manufacture and the history of conservation, for future generations. A team also came in and recorded parts of the surface using photogrammetry and basic digital scanning as part of the overall conservation process.
The Conservation team discovered some interesting time capsules, including shards of glass embedded in the top of the cast of the Portico de la Gloria from the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, probably from the roof which was shattered by bombs during the Second World War, and graffiti inside the casts, including the signature of Sergeant Bullen, who oversaw the construction of Trajan’s Column and carved his name into it in 1874.
How were the new exhibits selected, such as the scaled-down, digital reproduction of the Arch of Palmyra?
There were specific reasons behind the decision to create a copy of the Triumphal Arch, which was destroyed by ISIS in 2015. Some of these related to the central part it has played in the debate on how 3D scanning can help raise awareness about the vulnerability of world heritage monuments and sites, and the dangers they face. To give the decision some context, in 2017, the Reproduction of Art and Cultural Heritage (ReACH) Declaration updated a Convention of 1867 organised by the Museum’s first Director, Henry Cole, which was signed by 15 European princes who agreed to make works of art available for copying and sharing around the world. The update rewrote the Convention for the digital age. To create the replica arch, the Institute for Digital Archaeology, based in Oxford, gathered over 200 photographs that had been taken by tourists and archaeologists, scanned them and then knitted them into a point cloud, before filling in the gaps to create the reproduction. From the digital file a CNC-milling machine was programmed to carve a 30%-scale replica in marble which was shown in Trafalgar Square. It brought international attention to both the plight of Palmyra and the potential of digital technology. It is a controversial object among archaeologists who have questioned its accuracy but for me, issues relating to accuracy and approximations only add to a copy’s story; for example, my colleague Victor Borges, when conserving the monumental cast of the Portico de la Gloria from the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Spain, found a number of places where the cast maker, Domenico Brucciani, had understandably cut corners when making the reproduction, given that he only had two months to complete the work. All copies, old and new, are approximations of varying degrees of accuracy.
What has been the reaction of visitors since the full reopening?
Although not carried out scientifically, the feedback we’ve had from monitoring social media and general responses from the press and visitors has been fantastic. We’re confident that the approach of engaging directly with modern audiences is working. One of the standout features of the gallery is that it still, broadly, houses the collection it was built to show in 1873, so we were keen to tap into this and give visitors a sense of history. When you walk into the Cast Courts you are stepping into the 19thcentury.
The 3D prints also enable us to put our visitors into Victorian shoes. The excitement around digital technology now and many of the arguments in its favour are a reprise of discussions had around copying in the 1850s. Commercially, 3D printing is at a similar stage to electrotyping and photography around the time of the Great Exhibition: expensive, niche and mind-blowing. Using the excitement around digital technology as a way in for modern audiences has enabled us to communicate the excitement felt in the mid-19thcentury about new copying technologies. So, we can send visitors back in time when they walk into the historic space. And conversely, we can also give them a Victorian vision of the future. The Cast Courts showed how the world was becoming more connected and accessible in a way that might be compared in recent decades to the development of the internet.
The Ruddock Family Cast Court and The Chitra Nirmal Sethia Gallery are now open
For further information, visit: https://www.vam.ac.uk/collections/cast-collection
I visited this exhibition on the weekend as part of my studies and it was wonderful. The V&A is a great place to wonder, sit and take your sketchbook. A must see if in London!