Research helps show how technology behind the V&A’s Cast Courts underpins the modern world

Sussex research helps show how technology behind the V&A’s Cast Courts underpins the modern world

Research conducted by a University of Sussex teaching fellow has proved fundamental to the recently restored Cast Courts at the Victoria and Albert Museum, revealing how the developments pioneered by a Victorian manufacturer are relevant today.

Dr Alistair Grant , a Teaching Fellow in Art History and a Research Fellow at the V&A, was heavily involved in the reinterpretation of the Cast Courts, working alongside Senior Curator, Angus Patterson.

The spectacular galleries, which reopened in November, show replicas and reproductions of famous pieces like Trajan’s Column and the Portico de la Gloria from the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. The copies were made as artists’ models to complement the collections of ‘original’ works and turn the Museum into an encyclopedia of international decorative styles.

The courts, originally opened in 1873, remain the most visible expression of the Museum’s founding role as an art school. By presenting replicas of art and architecture from around the world under one roof, the Courts opened up the museum to those who couldn’t afford to visit the iconic monuments across Europe.

While the most monumental copies in the Courts are plaster casts, the Museum also fostered new imaging technologies of electrotyping and photography.

This history was the subject of Dr Grant’s doctoral thesis, Elkington & Co. and the Art of Electro-metallurgy, circa 1840-1900 (2015), prepared in partnership between the University and the V&A. It was this research into the relationship between the V&A and the industrial art and design manufacturer Elkington & Co. who supplied many of the electrotypes, which proved pivotal to the academic development of the newly interpreted courts.

Electrotypes (copies made of copper electrolytically deposited into moulds of original works and then gilded or plated, also by electrolysis) were, like photographs, revolutionary combinations of science, art and industry.

Dr Grant said: “My doctoral and postdoctoral research at the Museum was the first major study into the art of Elkington & Co. who invented and patented the scientific and industrial methods to commercially electrodeposit gold, silver, copper and nickel.

“Electrotyping was a 19th-century alchemy and Elkington developed and patented this process of electrotyping, working closely with the Museum for 70 years. The firm produced artworks, perfect replicas and luxury goods including sports trophies like the Wimbledon Singles Trophies and tableware that sank with the Titanic.”

Angus Patterson, Senior Curator in the V&A’s Department of Sculpture, Metalwork, Ceramics and Glass said: “Working with Alistair has transformed the Museum’s approach to its copies.

“We now present the copies as objects worthy of historic interpretation in their own right, each with its own biography that is quite separate from the original. The electrotypes in particular are presented as the embodiments of the scientific, industrial, artistic and social change that helped first establish the V&A and all the museums around the world built in its image.

“Before the refurbishment, many visitors used to walk into the Cast Courts and then walk out again when they realised they were seeing copies. Now, interest in copies has been revived, encouraged by digital reproductions.

“The collaboration with Alistair has enabled us to show that all the excitement around scanning and photogrammetry, 3D printing and CNC milling is simply a modern replication of the same arguments put forward for electrotyping and photography in the mid-19th century.”

Elkington’s relationship with the Museum is explored further in the book The Museum and The Factory: The V&A, Elkington and The Electrical Revolution (V&A/Lund Humphries, 2018), authored by Alistair and Angus.

The book begins with an introductory essay outlining the political, social and industrial contexts that provided a backdrop to Elkington’s pioneering innovation before presenting biographies of eight major works from the V&A’s collection.

The book concludes with a chapter on the legacy of the technology and how the convergence of the internet, digital scanning and 3D printing has seen a huge revival in the interest in replication.

Dr Grant said: “There’s nothing new in the way 3D printing is combining art, science and technology to replicate and reproduce objects. Elkington is right at the heart of the electrical revolution.

“Electrotyping is used today to structure production in nanotechnology and in the manufacture of microprocessors. The technology underpins the modern world. The Cast Courts at the V&A remind us that we have been here before.”

The Museum and the Factory: The V&A, Elkington and the Electrical Revolution is available to buy on the V&A’s online shop.

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By: Stephanie Allen
Last updated: Tuesday, 16 April 2019