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
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!
I have recently returned from a visit to Scotland to see the plaster cast collections in Edinburgh and Glasgow. In Edinburgh it was the Trustees’ Academy, founded in the late eighteenth century, that built a teaching collection of plaster casts for the teaching of drawing. This collection was augmented when the Academy shifted its institutional identity under the Department of Science and Art from 1858. The casts are now distributed between Edinburgh College of Art, the Scottish National Gallery and the University of Edinburgh.
Heading west, I visited the Glasgow School of Art, where the curator Peter Trowles was kind enough to share his knowledge of their extensive collections. The archive of the GSA is particularly rich in the ephemera related to the acquisition of plaster casts, with a wealth of useful invoices and correspondence from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It was particularly gratifying to see several Brucciani casts dating from the same period as those here at the Museum of Classical Archaeology. I am also grateful to the Archives and Collections Assistant, Michelle Kaye, for locating some fascinating archival material that will really help to contextualise my research in Cambridge.
I would not be the first to suggest that some of the most tantalising and charismatic museum spaces are beyond the public face of the institution. The ‘backstage’ or ‘below stairs’ can speak with a different voice and reveal shifting priorities of collection and display over time. The stores of the Museum of Classical Archaeology are not particularly labyrinthine, nor do they subscribe to the romance of dust, but they still communicate the frisson that exists between loss and discovery. There seems to be a certain amount of pathos in these heads and bodies, some displaying the bright white wounds that are almost inevitable even in the most carefully coddled cast collections, becoming fragments of fragments.
In my usual line of research I am used to thinking about why plaster casts of antique statuary were used to teach art and design in the middle decades of the nineteenth century. The collection that was put together for the Museum of Classical Archaeology in the late nineteenth century poses different questions about the transmission of knowledge through objects. The photograph above represents the casts in the context of the lecture theatre (many still have the wheels underneath the pedestals that allowed this mobility). Although the casts are no longer quite so mobile (you’ll spot them in various locations around the Faculty of Classics) they are still mobilised for teaching, though not as the didactic instruments of the nineteenth century. It has been interesting witnessing the supervisions that take place in the Museum, which seem to use the plaster casts as discursive or dialogistic objects rather than unmediated archaeological ‘evidence’.
A short introduction to three of the principal agents in my research at the Museum of Classical Archaeology:
Domenico Brucciani (1815-1880)
Brucciani, a formatore from Lucca, was manufacturing and selling plaster casts in London from 1829. Having supplied the Government Schools of Design, British Museum and South Kensington Museum with casts, he opened a showroom near Covent Garden called the Galleria delle Belle Arti in 1864. His obituary in The Builder offered the following endorsement: ‘Although chiefly a plasterman in calling, he was an artist at heart’. After his death, the business was purchased by a fellow Italian, Joseph Caproni (1846-1900), who retained the name D. Brucciani & Co. It is this incarnation of the business that supplied many of the plaster casts to the Fitzwilliam Museum and the Museum of Classical Archaeology.
Sidney Colvin (1845-1927)
Colvin usefully bridges the gap between classics and fine art for the purposes of this project. He studied classics at Trinity College and became a fellow in 1868. Having established a reputation for writing on the fine arts in the periodical press, he held the position of Slade professor of fine art in Cambridge between 1873 and 1885. During this time, he also took the post of director of the Fitzwilliam Museum and was instrumental in the establishment of the Museum of Classical Archaeology. Colvin’s views on art were very much informed by John Ruskin, to whom we now turn…
John Ruskin (1819-1900)
Ruskin perhaps remains the most well known commentator on the visual arts in the nineteenth century. He is of interest to this project for his role in the inauguration of the Cambridge School of Art in 1858, at which he delivered an important address on art education that was subsequently published as a pamphlet and much discussed in the periodical press. His central argument was that Schools of Art should teach operatives and artisans to see, rather than blindly copying their way to empty technical facility. Ruskin’s connection to Cambridge continued through visiting lectures and a donation of 25 drawings by Turner to the Fitzwilliam Museum in 1861.