3. Conservator working on Trajan's Column © Victoria and Albert Museum, London Rope Access down inside trajan’s column for a condition survey, conservation work around the cast courts, Roofline photography of Cast courts.
A conservator works on Trajan's Column at the V&A © Victoria and Albert Museum

Newly restored galleries housing one of the world’s greatest collections of sculptural casts will be unveiled at the Victoria and Albert Museum in December at the culmination of a seven-year redevelopment project.

The Cast Courts were created in the 19th century by Henry Cole, founding director of the V&A, as a way of bringing the world’s finest decorative art and sculpture to the British public at a time when few could afford to travel abroad to see the original works.

Curators would commission or acquire plaster casts of sculptures and architectural treasures such as Trajan’s Column in Rome; the 12th century Pórtico de la Gloria from the cathedral at Santiago de la Compostela in Spain; and the 5m tall copy of Michelangelo’s “David”, made from hundreds of plaster moulds taken from the original masterpiece.

The historic features of the Victorian galleries opened in 1873 have been painstakingly recreated, such as their 19th-century floors and wall colours, while conservators have used the closure to overhaul and clean the delicate plaster casts on display. Their reopening marks the second and final phase of the Cast Courts revamp; casts of Renaissance glories were unveiled in the Weston Cast Court in South Kensington in 2014.

8. Copper type patterns © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Copper type patterns to be displayed at the V&A © Victoria and Albert Museum

In the Cast Courts’ heyday, the V&A used its collection as a way of influencing Britain’s designers and artists as well as establishing the institution’s status as an “arbiter of taste”.

Angus Patterson, senior V&A curator of metalwork, said: “The Courts are the strongest embodiment of the museum’s founding mission as a place of art education for both practitioners and the public . . . The museum’s aim was both to get good product design into British factories and to shape ‘public taste’ to help consumers become more discerning in their choices.”

1. Cast of an aegicrane capital, plaster, from 16th Century stone pilaster capital in the Tuileries Palace in Paris © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Cast of an aegicrane capital, plaster, from 16th Century stone pilaster capital in the Tuileries Palace in Paris © Victoria and Albert Museum

The Cast Courts, the biggest galleries in the V&A, attracted huge interest from 19th century visitors. One was Queen Victoria, who, when invited to view the newly arrived cast of David, asked for a fig leaf to protect his modesty during visits by foreign dignitaries. Cast in plaster and hung from hooks, the leaf remains on display today as a separate exhibit.

After casts lost their appeal in the 20th century, the V&A held on to its collection while other galleries destroyed theirs, leaving it with one of the best preserved and most comprehensive in the world. Its casts also preserve details that have been lost from some of the original works, which have deteriorated over the centuries.

5. Detail of the Pepys Cup 1879, electroformed copper, electroplated and electrogilt. Elkington & Co. © Angela Moore
Detail of the Pepys Cup, 1879, electroformed copper, electroplated and electrogilt © Angela Moore

An entirely new gallery will look at modern digital equivalents of 19th century plaster cast technology, such as a scaled-down 3D printed copy of the arch at Palmyra, Syria, destroyed by Isis in 2016.

The V&A has acknowledged the role of philanthropic foundations in the project by renaming two of the historic galleries. The West Court will now be called the Ruddock Family Cast Court in a nod to the Ruddock Foundation for the Arts. The Central Gallery will become the Chitra Nirmal Sethia Gallery, in recognition of funding support from the N. Sethia Foundation.

The Cast Courts at the V&A will reopen on December 1. Entrance is free.

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