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12th December 2014, 8:55am  (updated 12th December 2014, 9:03am)
Cast Court conservation puts historic sculptures back on display
The Weston Cast Court London’s Victoria & Albert Museum opened the doors to its newly refurbished Italian Cast Court this autumn, following a revealing programme of research by expert conservators.

First opened in 1873, the V&A’s Cast Courts were purpose-built to house one of the most comprehensive collections of post-classical European sculpture casts. Featuring some of the V&A’s largest objects, the two galleries are among the most popular in the Museum. They reopened in November, marking the first phase in the renovation of the Museum’s vast day-lit courts.

To steer the extensive renovation programme, Crick Smith – the University of Lincoln’s renowned conservation consultancy division – was commissioned to identify the nature, detail and current condition of the original decorative schemes within the Cast Court galleries.

Specialising in conserving the historic interiors of national landmarks, Crick Smith is renowned for its expertise in architectural paint research – an innovative methodology that combines archival findings with microscopic examination of paint samples.

Led by Michael and Ian Crick-Smith, the conservation team took more than 200 paint samples from the Cast Court. By analysing cross-sections of these samples they were able to identify where historic patterns remained, hidden under numerous layers of paint.

Their investigations revealed the Court’s original decoration in olive green and reddish purple colours, which was also adorned with stencils showing the names of artists and cities important in the history of art.

Repainted several times over more than a century of use, this original scheme was lost. However, thanks to the work of Crick Smith, Julian Harrap Architects and Metaphor Architects, the Museum has been able to reinstate this historical decoration, allowing visitors to enjoy the Court as it looked almost 150 years ago.

Michael Crick Smith, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Lincoln’s School of History & Heritage, said: “We are delighted that the Italian Cast Court is again open to visitors, and that the public can observe the historic decorative scheme that was in situ when the Museum first opened its doors.

“During our investigations we found that the substrate of the Court’s original decorative panels onto which the stencils were painted was in fact a very rough render. Revealing the intricate patterns which were created back in the 19th century was therefore a very difficult and lengthy task. We are however extremely pleased with the results – the unique scheme provides an ideal backdrop for the Museum’s remarkable cast collection.”

The 19th century ceramic tiled floor has also been restored and repairs to the glazed roof, ceiling and walls have helped to return the Court to its original splendour.

Marjorie Trusted, Lead Curator of the Cast Courts, said: “This splendid gallery displays some of the greatest sculptures of the Italian Renaissance, seen through life-size and dramatic 19th century plaster casts, in a richly-coloured and imposing interior. The full renovation will see the gallery transformed into one of the most impressive spaces in the V&A.”

The V&A’s cast collection is an exceptional example of the phenomenon of collecting plaster cast reproductions and electrotypes, which peaked in popularity during the mid to late 19th century when few people could afford to travel abroad. The South Kensington Museum (as the V&A was then known) was at the forefront of this enthusiasm, enabling visitors to admire and study faithful reproductions of important European monuments and works of art.

The collection now serves as a unique record of the finished sculptures and carvings from which they were made, as many of the originals may now have been lost, damaged or badly restored. The Cast Courts are also the only public galleries in the Museum which display the same collection of objects as when they were first opened.

The Italian Cast Court, renamed the Weston Cast Court in recognition of The Garfield Weston Foundation’s longstanding and generous support of the V&A, features more than 60 of the V&A’s finest 19th century reproductions of important Italian Renaissance monuments, including the five metre high cast of Michelangelo’s David (c.1856).

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