Who doesn’t love a sneak preview? It was a late night opening at the Victoria and Albert Museum, and most visitors were enjoying the very loud and upbeat band playing in the main entrance. However, I was there to use my members only entry to the reopened Cast Courts and as I flashed my card at the entrance, I found I had them to myself – what a treat.
Cast Courts, what are they, you may well ask. Back in time, before mass travel, very few people ever got to see the great architectural wonders of the world. A passion for collecting grew during the 18th and 19th century and the collectors came up with the ingenious idea of making copies of great works and bringing them to London so the public could travel the world and be inspired. Cast Courts were the very height of modernity and very popular. The V&A has 2 massive rooms which were designed to hold their collection of casts and originally opened in 1873. The rooms have been undergoing restoration along with their contents and now they are both open for visitors.
The 2 rooms are breathtaking, with towering ceilings built to accommodate massive columns and porticos. The information panel proclaims “You are walking into the 19th century… These historic galleries offer a glimpse of the Victorian museum”. Surviving in more or less their original state, these cast courts are very rare examples, a chance to walk back in time.
The restoration has brought us a new treat and one that I had not expected, we can go inside Trajan’s Column! The column, copied from Rome and in 2 parts as even the massive V&A room could not accommodate its full height, had an open door which I was a little wary of. I poked my head inside and found myself staring up through the inside of the column, built around a brick chimney, and was able to sit on the new side benches to take in the moment. You certainly can’t do this at the Roman original!
Michelangelo’s David is one of the most famous statues in the world and although I’ve been lucky enough to have seen in Florence, spending time with it in the Cast Court reminded me of its brilliance – and size! 3 other Michelangelo copies reinforce his dominance of the art of sculpture. We can also see the ‘fig leaf’, used to cover David’s more obvious features, although not for Queen Victoria as rumoured but for visiting dignitaries and royals who might be shocked!
Two pulpits by Giovanni Pisano , show the incredible detail captured by casting and it’s quite something to see these stunning works which date from some time around 1300.
The scale of one of the porticos is astounding and I was left with so many questions as to how the casting was achieved on site and then how the casts were transported and reassembled at the V&A. I would have like more information about this as part of the refurbishment, perhaps they will add this in future. This cast is of a doorway of the cathedral in Bologna and is a great testament to the ambition of the Victorians, it seems very few objects were too big or complex for them to tackle.
The only insight we are given into the casting process is this cast of the head of Moses and 3 examples of copies dating from 1879 to 2000. The original mould looks like it is made of a wax substance and is part of a larger statue on a Pope’s tomb in Rome. The information panel explains how multiple copies were often made to lend out to art schools around the country to inspire students as part of the museum’s founding purpose as an art school.
This painting shows a cast copy of the doorway of a Buddhist shrine on its 180 mile journey back to Calcutta, showing the incredible efforts the Victorians went to in building up their cast collections.
The Cast Courts are all replicas and form part of an interesting debate in the world of art about mass reproduction versus single originals made by the hand of the artist and which has more value. These works of exact reproduction, are now historic and worth visiting and exploring in their own right, especially in the numbers we can see them here. But would we rather see the actual one-off, David made by the hand of Michelangelo I reckon so….
The Cast Courts are free to enter within the V&A museum, which is also free to enter. Most of London’s great world-class museums are free, so do drop in and enjoy these amazing rooms. Check out their opening times and how to find the museum here: https://www.vam.ac.uk/visit