The Victoria and Albert Museum’s cast collection saw its inauguration in 1873. In past few decades, though, the casts that filled Gallery 46A and 46B were looking a bit worse for wear. Due to building constructions at the museum and other galleries and exhibitions consuming most of museum staff’s attention, the casts were accumulating extra dusts. This sparked an initiative to restore and renew the gallery seven years ago.
In the mid to late 19th century, interest in the plaster cast reached its height. In an effort to make European artworks more accessible to those in the UK, many museums began acquiring plaster casts of well-known artworks. Casts were sought after by individual collectors to fill their homes. Art school collected casts of classical and Renaissance sculptures to educate students. Thus, the South Kensington Museum – this was the original title of the V&A – collected cast reproductions and electrotypes to accommodate their collection.
The Casts Court was begun by the museum’s first director, Henry Cole who recognized the advantage of amassing a comprehensive collection. According to the V&A, Cole coerced 15 European princes, from Albert Edward to Napoleon’s younger brother, Prince Jérôme Bonaparte to agree in a formal exchange of casts between European museums thus encouraging the spread of knowledge of artworks.
Key works in the history of art were commissioned by different collectors with particular interest in the Italian Renaissance. For this reason, many manufacturers of casts were Italian. The V&A took particular interest in Oronzio Lelli, a Florence-based firm which produced high quality casts from various periods.
When the South Kensington Museum’s Cast Courts were built, they were specifically designed to accommodate the vast collection amassed by the museum. However, the cast of the Pórtico de la Gloria, in particular, was the main focus. The gallery had to be large enough to house the 12th century façade of Santiago de Compostela commissioned by the South Kensington Museum in 1866 by formatore, Domenico Brucciani. The 18-metre casts still amazes today when you’re confronted by the large facade at the end of the Cast Courts.
Reflecting the tastes of Victorian curators and audience, the Cast Courts were threatened by closed in the 1920s. However, despite less interest in the early half of the 20th century, the Cast Courts have since become one of the best-loved galleries in the museum and it is hard to disagree.
There is something exciting about walking through the life-size casts of various artworks. From classical sculpture like the cast of Michelangelo’s David to the intricate reliefs of Trajan’s Column, there is something new to discover each visit.
V&A staff have been hard at work cleaning each of the casts, working with small nooks and crannies and delicate plaster. If museum-goers observe the Courts from Gallery 111, they will see freshly restored sculptures wrapped in plastic awaiting their second heyday. The Victorian galleries will feel like they once did in 1873 with the recreation of 19th century floors and wall colours. On 1 December, the second phase of this seven-year project will be complete and the refreshed Cast Courts will be ready for V&A visitors once again.