The Mystery of the 28 Casts…

The Victoria and Albert Museum Archive has been a crucial source of information on the plaster casts in the collection of the Museum of Classical Archaeology, particularly those produced by D. Brucciani & Co. in the second half of the nineteenth century. With the invaluable help of the archivists, another intriguing connection between these two museums has emerged. The Boards of Survey files for the Departments of Architecture and Sculpture document the process of deaccession, dispersal and as a last resort, the destruction of objects in the collections.


In November 1956 Hugh Plommer of the Museum of Classical Archaeology wrote to John Pope-Hennessy, acting on information from the British Museum that the V&A were about to sell their casts of Greek and Roman architectural ornament. Plommer asked to see the objects with a view to accommodating them in Cambridge and a meeting was arranged in December 1956. Plommer ‘expressed [his] willingness to house a large part of the collection’, which numbered approximately 180 individual casts and it was felt to be important that they ‘should be preserved as a unity’. There was already a precedent for the transfer of classical casts from the V&A, with ‘a number […] presented to the University of Melbourne, the University of Western Australia and other similar bodies’. The casts in question were reported to be in poor condition, stored in the tower crypt in the basement of the museum. They had not been displayed ‘in living memory’ and their relevance to the rest of the collection was under question.

A year passed without movement, despite the principle of transfer having been agreed. The V&A had installed a new heating system in the basement which resulted in the dispersal of the casts into different storage areas, making it difficult to complete the necessary paperwork. Plommer was asked to wait ‘a few months’. This short delay turned into a very much longer one, a note in the file simply stating ‘suspend till June 1, 1969’, with no reason recorded. In September 1969 Pope-Hennessy’s successor, Terence Hodgkinson, wrote to Plommer again inviting him to visit the V&A and set the transfer back in motion. Plommer replied, ‘All this is a very long time ago. Much has happened since, & we are now rather uncertain of our own future’. Despite his understandably cool response to a process that should have been completed some 13 years previously, Plommer arranged to visit the following week.

The Museum of Classical Archaeology could no longer accept the majority of the casts, even though the V&A exerted gentle pressure: ‘it is possible that they might have to be destroyed, if we cannot find a good home for them’. To complete the transfer, a Board of Survey consisting of Hodgkinson, Charles Avery and Claus Michael Kauffmann inspected the casts on 2 January 1970. In total 28 casts were offered as a gift (no single object was thought to be worth more than £5, with the whole collection valued at £100), having been judged ‘not required for exhibition’. The casts were delivered to the Museum of Classical Archaeology on 26 February 1970.

Returning to Cambridge, the task of locating these 28 objects has begun. Minutes of MCA committee meetings revealed that in 2006 three examples of architectural ornament were deaccessioned from the collection and transferred to the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology in Oxford. They were recorded as the following:

Capital from Portico of Pantheon, Rome [corresponds to Ant. 157 or Ant. 207]

Capital from Temple of Mars Ultor, Rome [corresponds to Ant. 235]

Capital from Temple of Castor and Pollux, Rome

Capitals to Oxford

Into the van

So we can be reasonably certain that at least two of the three objects transferred to the Ashmolean had been part of the collection transferred from the V&A. As for the other 25, watch this space!


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One response to “The Mystery of the 28 Casts…”

  1. Griselda Bear says :

    Dear Rebecca Wade

    I’m fascinated to read of your research. My interest is from another viewpoint of an individual collector of a Brucciani cast. My father, the sculptor Mark Batten, carved directly in stone using only hand tools and had a great interest in early Greek sculpture. You can see more about his ideas in ‘Direct Carving in Stone’. He acquired a cast of the Strangford Apollo in the 1920s or 30s and I’d be fascinated to know how he got that. I always thought he bought it directly from the British Museum as he had a couple of casts from there also of a Benin head and Hypnos. But I see now that it may not have come from the British Museum. I’d be fascinated to know anything more about the route by which individuals may have bought these casts. Did they sometimes find their way into auctions for instance?

    Looking forward to hearing any thoughts you may have on this cast which is in excellent condition having always been in our home. I don’t think I can add photos to this message but I could send you photos of the cast.

    Griselda Bear

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University of Cambridge Museums

Archive of projects, events and news from 2012 to May 2017

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