Thursday, August 9, 2012

Architectural Cast Collections

In the 19th century, several museums assembled collections of full-size plaster casts of architectural details, such as doorways and choir stalls. The philosophy was that "a replica of a masterpiece was superior to a mediocre original." 

I made these pencil studies in the 1985 at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. At left is an ornate Celtic wood-carved ornament. On the right is a 15th century Spanish cloister doorway.

In an age when travel to Europe was a rarity for average Americans, cast collections gave everyone a chance to see masterpieces of architecture. They also provided architecture students with fine examples to study, especially when the original detail is high up or otherwise inaccessible.

According to the Carnegie Museum, which has a fine collection, "In the 19th century, the demand for plaster casts skyrocketed. As centerpieces of the great international fairs, casts nourished nationalistic pride, while independent cast galleries served the Victorian fervor for education by providing instruction to both the amateur and the art student. Also, the dominance of historical styles in premodern architecture required that the architecture student study the outstanding buildings of the past; in this pursuit, plaster casts played an essential role."

Unfortunately, twentieth century trends conspired against architectural cast collections. Making casts from fragile originals is no longer possible. The study of ornament fell out of favor in architecture schools. Museums came to prefer originals over reproductions. And casts take up a lot of space in museums.

In 1949, the Art Institute of Chicago intentionally destroyed their cast collection, and many other museums and universities followed suit. In 2005, the Metropolitan Museum dispersed its architectural cast collection. Two of the lucky recipients were the architecture school of the University of Notre Dame in Indiana and the Institute of Classical Architecture in New York.

If you live near London, Edinburgh, Pittsburgh, South Bend, or New York, visit their collections with a sketchbook, and make sure you let the museums know that you appreciate them keeping their collection on view.
More info and links:
I just finished writing an article on plein-air studies of architecture for ImagineFX magazine, so that will be out in a couple of months.
Victoria and Albert architecture collection/ History of the Cast Courts
Carnegie Hall of Architecture
University of Notre Dame Cast Collection
View the UND collection online via gigapan technology
Institute of Classical Architecture and Art in NYC
Edinburgh Cast Collection
George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum in Springfield, Massachusetts
Previous GJ post on figural plaster casts


en_b said...

Love that small picture with all the kids on the floor drawing

Nathan T said...

The originals may be too delicate to create new casts from with traditional techniques, but now we have 3D laser scanning and printing!

Anonymous said...

Or, if you want Frank Gehry casts to draw from, you can create your own by arbitrarily mangling some aluminium foil.

James Gunter said...

When I lived in western Pennsylvania the Carnegie Museum's "Hall of Architecture" was one of my favorite places to visit in Pittsburgh! This may sound funny but that huge room full of architectural replicas had an air or reverence to it. My favorite piece there was the "Well of Moses." They also have a "Hall of Sculpture" at the museum. The Carnegie Museum is one of those can't-see-it-all-in-one-trip kinds of places.

Anonymous said...

Is there a way to view these photos in a larger size? I have taken up "urban sketching" and it's stimulated an interest in architecture. I have had a lifelong interest in gargoyles and grotesques, and enjoy looking for them, hunting them down.

Erik Bongers said...

Hi Jim, off topic, but I'm not sure if you read new comments on older topics.
In regard with the camera panning you are experimenting with: here's home-made solution that might be worth a try:

James Gurney said...

Thanks, Eric, I do get alerts for comments from past posts. And I love all the tutorials for making cheap video support gear that are out there on the web. I've learned a lot from them. Like that jib video--thanks!

Kevin said...

Now that 3d scanning is becoming relatively cheap and portable, I'd love to see a digital collection of 3d models of classical sculpture and architecture. Not quite as nice as seeing a physical reproduction, but far easier to both access and maintain.

James Gurney said...

@Kevin: Yes, and if you wanted, you could print them out at any scale.