The Cast Courts at the V&A are among my favourite galleries in the museum. When the furthest I had travelled was from Norwich to the V&A I knew that one day I wanted to visit Fontevraud Abbey because of the copy of the Angevin tombs that I had seen there. Copies in a museum? Yep, that’s right. Copies of have been at the heart of the V&A collection right since the museum opened, even before it was the called the Victoria and Albert.
When the V&A opened it was intended to act as a school of design for artists and the public alike. At the time the vast majority of people would never travel abroad. So how better to show off the best of the world’s sculpture and architecture than by showing casts of the best bits of world culture. Yes all the vast intricate stuctures that you see in the Cast Courts were really cast from the real buildings and statues. Making the casts was a highly skilled job and in the nineteenth century every self respecting design museum would have a cast collection, the V&A is one of the few to remain.
Michelangelo’s David has been part of the V&A collection since day one. Clemente Papi made the mould using 1,500 tiny moulds that joined together in an amazing 3D jigsaw to make the whole 5 metre structure. The Grand Duck of Tuscany decided that original marble David was getting too weather beaten living outside and so wanted an exact copy to put in his place. A few years later the Grand Duke decided to present Queen Victoria with a plaster copy to make up for having refused an export licence to a painting coveted by the National Gallery. Shipping him over cost more than it cost to make the cast! To preserve Victorian modesty a fig leaf was made, you can still see the enormous leaf at the back of David’s plinth.
Eleanor of Aquitaine is my favourite English Queen she was feisty, intelligent and loved her culture. What especially appealed to me as a child was that she was reading a book on her tomb. I still pop by to say hello to Eleanor whenever I am in the V&A, tell her what I’m reading or have just seen.
The Trajan column is so vast that it needs to be displayed in two parts. You can even go inside the bottom half and gaze up at the incredible structure. The detail is easier to study here than on the original as there is 150 fewer years of weathering on the V&A’s version.
Another place I was inspired to visit by the Cast Courts was Santiago de Compostela. The Portico de la Gloria of the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela takes up the whole wall of the rooms. It is an incredible work of Romanesque work. When I eventually got to see it in real life it was raining, it quite often rains in that part of Spain. So far it has never rained on me in the V&A.
It isn’t only huge things in the Cast Courts. I love this bust of Pietro Mellini, he looks as if he would have interesting tales to tell. Before you go look down at the floor, the tiles were made by the inmates of the Woking Female Prison.
The best thing about taking the Grand Tour in the Cast Courts at the V&A? Afterwards you can retreat to one of the finest museum cafés anywhere in the world.
- Victoria and Albert Museum, Cromwell Road, SW7 2RL
- Open: Daily 10am – 6pm
- Admission: Free