Thursday, October 26, 2023

Cast Courts at the V&A...

Over the summer I discovered the Cast Courts at the V & A and whilst I must have visited these lofty exhibit rooms in the past, I had never really considered what was actually on display. As I went around the courts, I was stunned by the size of some of these works, towering above the visitors, and the number of these collection piece, all gathered together to great effect.
I could only imagine how Victorian counterparts must have felt when they entered these spaces - then known as the Architectural Courts - that were open to the public from 1873. It is said that the encounter was comparable to the first sighting of the Mont Blanc mountain in the Alps, leading to "impressions that can scarcely be effaced".
Since the majority of such 19th century visitors were unlikely to have been on a Grand Tour of Europe, with its majestic sights and scenery, they had likewise never had the opportunity to see the great works of art and architects from which the casts were taken.
The courts were initially conceived as part of the Governmental School of Design in 1837, with a collection of casts of ornamental art from across the ages and countries. This was largely in response to a report issued by The Select Committee on Arts & Manufactures in 1835. Therein, significant questions were posed concerning the nation's art, its importance to the individual and usefulness to country as a whole, with regard to the increasingly industrialized manufacturing industry, and more relevantly here, the role art education could play.
Indeed, from the early decades of the 1800s it had been recognized that English manufacturing, although deemed superior to that of other nations, was somewhat 'deficient in taste' in its forms and decoration and that, according to one article in the Illustrated London News , from 1843 "This national inferiority has arisen from our neglect of nature in the education of our ornamental designers, and from a mercenary habit of leaving the invention of our putterns to the accidental, unpaid, and uncultivated imaginations of the poor foremen of factories".
Hence, a number of Governmental schools were established in the great industrial cities of Britain. Whilst the economic success of the land was proven and showcased to international acclaim in the Grand Exhibition of 1851, more discretely perhaps, the School of the Design had marked a milestone in art education and appreciation. Casts were studied in their full dimensions - as opposed to drawings with their obvious limitations - enabling both male and female students to learn from their unique ornamental architectural details replicated from original works dating back centuries to the Renaissance and beyond.
In 1852, the Museum of Manufactures was set up, taking over the cast acquisitions of the School of Design and enlarging the collection since it was now a vital educational tool in the study of art and design. One of its aims was to improve public taste in matters of design and, like William Morris in the Arts and Craft Movement later, to lead the 'application of fine art to objects of utility'.
The collection grew significantly over the ensuing years to include figurative sculpture, with its volume and the size of certain reproductions requiring new rooms for display. When the South Kensington Museum (today's V&A) was created, the museum director, Henry Cole, ensured that the monumental casts were finally placed in the purpose-build rooms that we can enjoy today in their recently-renovated form. The original glazed roofs, ceiling, walls have now been returned to their former stature; the ceramic floor tiles created by Victorian female prison inmates - ironically refered to as an 'opus criminale' by Cole, bring together the whole space.
From 1873, the Architectural Courts displayed the cast collection to great dramatic effect so that pieces could be shown fully assembled rather than laid out in dismembered parts throughout the galleries and corridors. Hence the Spanish 12th century Portico de la Gloria from the cathedral at Santiago de Compostella greets us, as visitors past, to take our breath away by its sheer size and beauty. The spaces were likewise specifically designed to house the vast full-size plaster reproductions of Trajan's Column, towering to 25 metres.
One of the main exhibits in the collection is predictably the cast of Michelangelo's David, his gaze looming over admirers from a 5-metre vantage point. Drawing in the crowds eager for a selfie, with a similar type of hyped fame as the Mona Lisa in the Louvre, David stands proud in all his glory today. Since his arrival in the mid 19th century, he has earned somewhat of a succès de scandale following Queen Victoria's disapproval of his nude form and demand for modesty. An aptly-placed sculpted fig leaf was obligingly positioned to conceal the offending parts from public view...
The skill with which the casts were created largely beggars belief and the fact that these monumental, architectural, ornamental and figurative works are 'mere' reproductions takes nothing away from their artistry. How could such vast pieces be carried out in Victorian times when means were supposedly far more rudimentary than anything we have today? But then that is a question that frequently arises when considering Victorian achievements in almost every field.
The casts were intended to inspire and educate their public, leading Great Britain to attain even greater accomplishments, using the most impressive artwork from other ages and areas across Europe to further jewel the crown of the British Empire. The reproductions reflect the same driving force behind much of the Victorian thirst for culture and knowledge in every possible domain.
Through the quasi-religious study and, above all, collection of artifacts and facts themselves, the Victorians sought to understand and thus master the world around them. In this manner, the very limits of the world were conquered, often using methods and means that demonstrated the very best and worst of human undertakings.
The collection was not, however, safe from the vagaries of time and certainly taste. Already, concern was raised during the acquisiton of the casts in the 19th century, with the fear that the original works would be damaged in the complex casting process of reproduction. Furthermore, changes to the academic study of art - drawing and sculpture - meant that the casts were considered redundant to educational purposes in the early 1920s and were even at risk of being dismantled entirely.
Fortunately, the cast court was maintained and has even gained in importance over time as the original pieces were often destroyed in wartime hostilities, or damaged by the ageing process and the impact of weather extremes, pollution and shoddy or clumsy restoration work.
Finally, the fact that these are 'fake' pieces is irrelevant since they are genuine works of art in their own right and a testimony to the skill and mastery of the Victorian age, which, for all its ills, was capable of marvels.

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