From the monuments of ancient Rome to England's Gothic cathedrals, the Royal Academy's collection of architectural casts don't just reveal fascinating details of the original buildings - they are also a telling snapshot of the time in which they were made.
The summer of 2012 has been an exciting moment, almost an archaeological one, at the Royal Academy Schools. A large collection of plaster casts of architectural elements – assembled in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries for teaching purposes, and now forming part of the Royal Academy’s significant cast collection – was revealed from behind panels in the First Year Studios.
Although not exactly a surprise, since parts of many of the casts already stuck out above the panels and others had been removed in the recent past, this project, initiated by the RA’s Collections and Library Department and funded by Arts Council England, allowed for a thorough evaluation. The project was overseen by the RA’s Collections Manager, Rachel Hewitt, and the Curator of Photographs, Pat Eaton. A classical archaeologist, Julia Lenaghan, was on hand to identify the sources of the casts and to catalogue them, and a team of conservators from Taylor Pearce was ready to clean and consolidate the fragile plaster objects. Two photographers, Paul Highnam and Francis Ware, one to take shots of individual objects and another to document them in situ, were also significant contributors to the project.
Plaster casts were a fashionable necessity for the informed and cultured of Europe from the mid-eighteenth century. Having access to high quality reproductions of pieces made by the great masters of the Greek, Roman and Renaissance worlds was crucial to the education of any artist or accomplished individual. However, as fashions come and go, so too did casts. By the end of the nineteenth century, interest in other eras made the standard Greek and Roman works less exciting and by the early twentieth century the use of ornamental features in modern architecture had become almost a crime. Moreover, casts were easily broken and even more easily made dirty and unattractive as dust sticks to the porous surface. At the RA Schools the Architecture School closed its doors in the mid-1960s, and thus the exceptional collection of architectural casts was put in storage or hidden behind panels and forgotten.
The Royal Academy’s architectural cast collection, as it now stands, is a unique and historic assemblage. It features a series of 50 relief heads with incredible individualising detail taken from
Trajan's Column in Rome, as it appeared in the early 19th Century. More details on the RA Collections site the Column of Trajan in Rome
during the mid-eighteenth century (which are far better preserved than the originals); around 200 casts of pieces from the city of Rome,
which once belonged to the painter Sir Thomas Lawrence PRA and date to 1790–1820, including the towering, 1.5-metre-high capital from the Temple of Mars Ultor in the Roman Forum; approaching 100 works from classical Greece, many of which were acquired after the British Museum purchased the Elgin collection in 1816;
and a range of playful and inventive animal capitals from the Gothic cathedrals in England (for example, Lichfield and York). These casts have value as archaeological objects as they preserve elements as they were in the eighteenth century before restorations or further weathering to the originals. But they also serve as modern historic objects that formed our concept of traditional decoration and taste, as the students of architecture, turned practising architects, repeated these details all over the cities of Europe.
Although the architectural cast collection has not been catalogued or conserved before, it has been documented photographically on one other notable occasion. In February 1876 the Royal Academy’s Council granted permission to Bedford Lemere and Co.
to undertake photography in the Architecture School. Founded by Bedford Lemere in the 1860s, the company was one of the earliest studios to specialise in architectural photography. In 1872 the company had photographed the collection of casts at the Royal Architectural Museum in Westminster. The photographs produced were praised in the architectural press and the photographer was thanked for making the value and contents of the museum more widely known and accessible to architects and their pupils. Perhaps this encouraged the Academy to grant permission to Lemere to undertake photography in the Schools.
This photograph from 1953 by Russell Westwood shows a lecture by the architect Sir Albert Richardson PRA taking place in the Architecture School before it closed its doors and the casts were concealed. Photo: R.A. © The Artist's Estate Fortunately, at this time gelatine dry plates were just becoming commercially available and it is likely that Lemere would have taken advantage of this method to photograph the Academy’s casts. These plates, with their sensitive emulsions that speeded up exposure times, made photography of interiors far more feasible. Bedford Lemere and Co. was to become one of the most prolific architectural photographers of this period with over 50,000 photographs offered for sale, including sets of architectural styles and building types. It is likely that the Royal Academy’s collection of architectural casts would have been of interest to Lemere to create just such a series of photographs.
These architectural casts constitute an important part of the Royal Academy’s permanent collection and its collection of casts is one of the oldest in the United Kingdom. Many of the architectural casts are again hidden from view, protected behind panels in the busy First Year Studios, but others can be viewed by appointment. Moreover, as with many works in the Royal Academy’s collection, they can be accessed in large part on the collection website, www.racollection.org.uk
(more works will be added over the coming weeks).