Trajan's Column in the Cast Courts.
The Victoria and Albert Museum is a remarkable treasure house. Initially designed to show off many of the exhibits that had featured in the Great Exhibition of 1851. The present building was completed in 1909 and it is, according to the V and A’s own website, “The world’s greatest museum of art and design.” I don’t think there are many competitors. Over the years the numerous galleries have been arranged and re-arranged to accommodate the never ending acquisition of new artefacts. However, there is one section of the museum that still displays the same objects that they were originally built to house.
The Cast Courts might be two of the most spectacular museum spaces anywhere. Vast columns, huge pieces of religious architecture and facsimiles of some of the most famous pieces of renaissance art repose in the aesthetically pleasing courts now renamed as the Weston Cast Court (room 46b) and the Ruddock Family Cast Court (room 46a). The Courts have just reopened after several years of refurbishment. They should be on everyones list of must see objects.
The Cast Courts were the brainchild of the V and A’s first director, Henry Cole and first curator John Charles Robinson. Towards the end of the Victorian era very few people could afford to travel to Europe to see the great architecture and artworks of the renaissance. Robinson especially believed strongly that the V and A should exhibit objects that would educate and enthrall everyone. But even though the British Empire was at its height and many treasures had been “acquired” from around the globe, the Parthenon Marbles and Cleopatra’s Needle to name but two, it was never going to be easy to acquire other objects of great cultural importance to other countries. Producing facsimile copies through the process of taking casts was the solution. And this is what we find in all their magnificent glory in the Cast Courts today.
The producing of exact copies of objects through casting either physically by creating a mould or chemically through electrotyping has been practised for probably, centuries. Some of the processes are very simple, others more complicated. The Chitral Nirmal Sethia Gallery separating the two Courts display excellent descriptions and examples of how the various casting processes work. But the real wonder comes as you enter the Courts themselves.
The Ruddock Family Court is dominated by the vast complete copy of Trajan’s Column, the 35 metres tall pillar built to commemorate the Emperor Trajan’s great victory against the Dacians. The V and A copy is displayed in two halves and indeed the gallery was originally constructed to display this object. And it is a wonder. You can see the intricate carvings displaying no less than 155 scenes incorporating 2,500 figures. If it were possible to unwrap the the decoration and lay it out in a straight line, it would measure just over 200 metres long! You can even go inside the lower half of the column and look up through the interior and witness how those clever Victorians built a brick core around which the casts were displayed.
Not far away you will find the awe inspiring 41 metre wide cast of the East front of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostella. Again the Court was specifically designed to be wide enough to accommodate this extraordinary cast. It is astonishing to learn that it only took 2 months work to obtain the casts that were used to make the moulds that allow us to see this 12th century masterpiece of Spanish ecclesiastical architecture. Known as the Portico de la Gloria, the piece shows scenes from the apocalypse. The value of this piece along with Trajan’s Column is revealed as both of the original objects have been subject to the ravages of weather and pollution. It is a truism that many of the objects in the cast courts show better levels of detail that the originals.
The reality is that you could spend several happy hours luxuriating in the company of some of the most famous pieces of art ever produced. Michaelangelo’s David is here, complete with temporary fig leaf that was deployed to prevent Victorian ladies from being overcome with a fit of the vapours at the sight of his colossal, ahem, genitalia. I suspect that the fig leaf actually says more about Victorian men than women.
Just behind David you’ll find Ghiberti’s outstanding Baptistry Doors. Often cited as being among the first artististic representations to accurately display an understanding of linear perspective, the doors are utterly jaw dropping. Displaying Old Testament scenes fro Adam and Eve through to Solomon and Sheba, you will get a much clearer view than you would ever get in Florence.
These are just a very small selection of the hundreds of casts on display. Other objects that I found myself gripped by include casts of effigies the early English Kings, Henry II and Richard the Lionheart taken from their last resting place at Fontevrault Abbey in France. Anglo Saxon crosses dating back to the seventh century and the time of Sutton Hoo are here too. Only a brief look at these will confirm the view that this period in English History was a very long way away from being “dark”. There might not have been much history written, but my goodness, the craftsmen that produced the writhing forms of intertwined animals were possessed of the highest orders of skill producing superb carvings.
The V and A is a large and sometimes confusing place. If your going for the first time, my advice would be to head straight for the Cast Courts. I think it is appropriate for all ages. Children will love the intricate carvings but will be more impressed by the sheer scale of many of the objects. There is something for everyone here. Go and enjoy it!
Copyright, Richard Ing 2019
Photography, Richard Ing 2019