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Art review: the Cast Courts at the V&A

22 February 2019

Nicholas Cranfield sees European civilisation captured in two rooms

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

A view of the Cast Courts, including part of Trajan’s column and the Portico de la Gloria at Compostela

A view of the Cast Courts, including part of Trajan’s column and the Portico de la Gloria at Compostela

IN 2011, the Victoria and Albert Museum undertook to refurbish the two courtyards that house casts and copies of statuary, monuments, and architectural members. The first of the two reopened in 2014, and the project has now been handsomely completed with the addition of a central corridor, where there is a scaled-down digital model of the arch destroyed by Islamic State at Palmyra in 2015, a reminder of the value of reproductive casting.

© Victoria and Albert Museum, LondonThe cast of the Ruthwell Cross in centre in this view of the refurbished V&A Cast Courts

The idea of casting copies from bronze and stone may seem as dull as plaster of Paris itself, but the works collected in the 19th century were first intended for scholarly study. They reveal not only something about Victorian attitudes towards education, but also offer visitors the experience of being able to get close to some of Western Europe’s most challenging and exciting art and architecture.

The South Kensington Museum (as it was called before it was given a royal sobriquet) first became a repository for a range of plaster effigies that had been commissioned for the Great Exhibition of 1851.

These included almost textbook copies from English history as medieval kings and queens, of the likes of Henry II, Eleanor of Acquitaine, Eleanor of Castile (a striking woman to judge by the likeness that William Torel made of her in 1251-53), lie alongside the good and great: John Talbot, 1st Earl of Shrewsbury, is buried at St Alkmund’s, Whitchurch (Shropshire), but a copy of his much restored tomb monument (1453) is here, with several unidentifiable crusader knights.

Ten years after the Great Exhibition, the museum set about expanding its collection, and first opened its Cast Courts to the public in 1873. One is dominated by a full-scale reproduction of Trajan’s column, and the other by Michelangelo’s statue of David. Queen Victoria was so scandalised by the nudity of the five-metre-high figure when she was sent it as a gift by the Grand Duke of Tuscany (he must have been amused) that she commissioned a detachable fig leaf to be hooked into place.

In 1861, the Emperor Napoleon III had commissioned two copies of Trajan’s column, and the moulds, later cast in copper electrotype, were created on site in the Forum over two years. The museum paid £2448 11s. 2d. for its plaster copy in 1862, and, ten years later, independently recreated the column base. Too tall to stand entire in the gallery, the column is displayed in two parts, and it is now possible to enter the base to look up inside this extraordinary survival of the classical Antique.

It was built to celebrate the Emperor Trajan’s victories over the Dacians in modern-day Romania (AD 101-03 and 107-08). The pedestal was originally surmounted by a statue of the Emperor. In 1587, Pope Sixtus V replaced it with one of St Peter, designed by Tommaso Della Porta. Eric Gill traced the inscription recording this substitution, and this inspired what typesetters know as Gill Sans.

© Victoria and Albert Museum, LondonLooking through the Cast Courts to the cast of Michelangelo’s David

It is one of few works from Classical Antiquity to be copied for the museum, although I think that some reliefs from one of the Greek temples, possibly Bassae, are kept in storage. Now the pagan column is encircled with standing stones from around Britain, Celtic monuments to our earlier Christian heritage.

The Ruthwell Cross (Dumfriesshire), in a much more sympathetic cast than that used in the soon-to-close British Library exhibition of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms (Arts, 4 January), and those from St Paul’s, Irton (Cumberland), St Peter’s, Wolverhampton, St Cuthbert’s, Bewcastle, and from County Louth, the Monasterboice Cross stand sentinel around.

Readers of Dan Brown will no doubt flock to the Cast Court to see the famous Apprentice Pillar from Rosslyn Chapel, part of a reconstructed copy of the south-eastern corner of the chapel. Others may wish to notice the monument to a Cluniac nun, Joan de Vere (died c.1300), which had originally been in the priory of St Pancras, at Southover, near Lewes.

© Victoria and Albert Museum, LondonAn 1865 statue of Mercury and Psyche remains swathed with wood during the refurbishment work at the Cast Courts

When that Sussex house was suppressed by King Henry VIII (16 November 1537), the tomb was found a home in Chichester Cathedral, a rare early example of an antiquarian mentality. What is left of the priory church is now bisected by a railway line; Anne of Cleves, briefly Henry’s fourth wife and consort (January to July 1540), had once lived near by.

It is probably the scale and confidence of the Italian Gothic and Renaissance world which will excite most, not least with the great pulpits from Pisa, one designed by Nicola Pisano for the Baptistery (1260) and the other by Giovanni Pisano (c.1302-10) for the cathedral, and the later one that Benedetto da Maiano created in Florence for Santa Croce (1481).

The ornately decorated tomb of St Peter Martyr (1205-52) from the Basilica of St Eustorgius in Milan is a reminder, if one is needed, of how wealthy Dominicans became leading patrons of art and of architecture. The tomb chest is set high on eight column supports, each with a figure of one of the virtues. Designed by the Pisan sculptor Giovanni di Balduccio in 1338, it was intended to emulate the tomb that Nicola Pisano had executed in Bologna (1264-67) for St Dominic, the founder of the Order of Preachers. Here it now stands, free of the ghastly grey metal railings that used to close off so many of these exhibited treasures.


The Cast Courts are in Room 46a-46b at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Cromwell Road, London SW7. Phone 020 7942 2000. www.vam.ac.uk

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