The first task of my research project was to identify the plaster casts in the collection of the Museum of Classical Archaeology that were acquired in the nineteenth century, which was possible through Charles Waldstein’s Catalogue of Casts in the Museum of Classical Archaeology (London: Macmillan, 1889). Waldstein was the Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum and although the Museum of Classical Archaeology had become a distinct entity in 1884, it remained under the jurisdiction of its first home.
I then set about isolating the plastercasts than had been manufactured by Brucciani, a formatore from Lucca who’s firm supplied the Department of Science and Art and the British Museum fromthe mid-nineteenth century onwards. Domenico Brucciani had died in 1880, but the use of his name and his moulds continued until the Victoria and Albert Museum acquired them in 1921 for the Department for the Sale of Casts, which operated until 1951. These particular casts are of interest because they represent a canon of objects used to transmit knowledge across the disciplines of fine art, industrial design and classical archaeology. They were an important part of nineteenth-century material culture, valued for their mobility, economy and fidelity.
I am now pursuing two parallel threads of research: sourcing representations of these particular casts from the Royal Academy Schools and the national network of Schools of Art and building an understanding of the position of art education in Cambridge through the establishment of the Cambridge School of Art in 1858. The culture of the school was shaped by the inaugural address delivered by John Ruskin, published in the same year. The school was superintended by the Department of Science and Art and presumably also supplied with a standardised teaching collection of plaster casts. Ruskin was openly critical of this centralised, codified system, which makes his presence and influence in Cambridge remarkable. The artist Richard Redgrave was also present at the inaugural soirée, in the capacity of Inspector General of the Department. He was responsible for the infamous ‘National Course of Instruction’, a rigorous curriculum of 23 separate stages that most students failed to complete. He expressed the hope that ‘the authorities would place at the disposal of the students that admirable collection which the University possessed at the Fitzwilliam Museum (applause), which would indeed afford facilities in the progress of Art’
This project will investigate the nineteenth century plaster casts of the Museum of Classical Archaeology and the mechanisms through which casts were acquired until the Museum established its own discrete identity in 1884. The origins of the Museum have been addressed in an important article by Professor Mary Beard and in the two decades since its publication, scholarship on plaster casts and other facsimiles has proliferated and new approaches to the subject have been established.
Building on my doctoral research into teaching collections for mid-nineteenth century art and design education, this project aims to trace the particular conditions of production, acquisition and display related to this collection. It will be particularly useful to determine the degree to which the manufacture, circulation and interpretation of these plaster casts intersected with those distributed to the national network of Government Schools of Design from the 1840s onwards, through which plaster casts of antique statuary were deployed as instruments for the instruction of industrial design.
It will also be important to establish the extent to which the Cambridge School of Art, founded in 1858 with the support of John Ruskin (1819-1900), appropriated the collection of plaster casts for the teaching of drawing. The intersections between classics, archaeology and the practice of fine art were embodied in Sidney Colvin (1845-1927), Slade Professor of Art at Cambridge from 1873 and Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum from 1876. Colvin’s donations to the Museum will therefore form a specific area of investigation.
I hope this body of research will extend the understanding of the early collections of the Museum of Classical Archaeology through their use as pedagogic objects across the disciplines of fine art, industrial design, classics, art history and archaeology. Although oriented towards the history and historiography of the collection, this study may also point towards new ways of interpreting these objects for different audiences.