Victorian technology and 3D reproduction

Having recently spent an evening trying my hand (literally) at plaster casting, I was fascinated to read that, for the Victorians, this technology was as exciting and popular as digital reproduction is for us. In a pre-Benjamin age, it raises many of the same questions about the reproducibility of works of art, and the value of the copy. Given nearly 150 years of historical perspective, we can also see the fate of these copies.

Ive been reading “The World as Sculpture” by James Hall, which has some fascinating references to the making of casts, very widespread in the 1860s and 1870s. An early application of technology to the reproduction of artworks. Paradoxically, it was easier then to reproduce objects than to copy 2D images, and this was widely seen as a way of making art more available (eg for students to draw), and retaining the image of famous faces.

Hall refers to the Bruccchiani company of 254 Goswell Road, London, the leading casting enterprise in the UK, which was taken over by the V&A in 1948. The NPG has several of Domenico Bruccianis works. The V&A collection was opened in 1873. It includes casts of Northern European Spanish and Italian sculpture and Trajans column. The V&A has a long essay by Malcolm Baker on its own cast collection, which concludes:
“…Reproduction of all types – casts, electrotypes, photographs and copy drawings – formed a substantial and highly-regarded part of the Museums early collections. Similar holdings were then being formed by other European museums but with a few exceptions, such as the Trocadero in Paris (confined to French examples) and the Kongelige Afstobningssamling in Copenhagen, these have since been destroyed or dispersed so that the V&As collection is a virtually unique example of a remarkable 19th century phenomenon…..Since the 19th century they have acquired a new significance. In a few cases, such as the late 15th century Lubeck relief of Christ washing the Apostles feet, the original has been destroyed and the cast is unique record of a lost work. More often the cast shows details no longer to be see on the original which has been badly restored, as with the relief from S. Maria dei Miracoli, Brescia. In the case of the tympanum from Hildesheim comparison with the original shows the effect on the surface of the carving of over 100 years of environmental pollution. Despite efforts to reduce such pollution and to protect outstanding monuments this process is likely to continue so that the casts will become an increasingly valuable record of lost or damaged works, as well as an impressive and intriguing reflection of the taste of the curators and the public of the 1870s.”

Baker also says: “By 1864 plans for an international exchange of copies of the finest works of art which each country possesses were drawn up and the Foreign Offices help enlisted to obtain from European governments lists of major works in their possession. This … culminated in the International Convention of promoting universally Reproductions of Works of Art which …. 15 European princes […signed…> as they visited the Paris International Exhibition…. As a result of the Convention the acquisition of Casts reached its height in the early 1870s and the collection began to assume the appearance and scale that made such an impression when the Architectural Courts were opened in 1873.”

The library of Princeton has an odd list of dozens of life and death masks in its possession. These include innumerable death masks, of Beethoven, Rossetti (an original Brucchiani) and Max Reinhart (original, by Frederick Dreyfus): if this is Max Reinhardt, it musthave been made in 1943). It also has life masks such as Goethe and Garrick, and “Florida Negro boy Box 16 From life”. Poor child: not a volunteer, presumably.
This site lists other collections.

As well as coinciding with Victorian taste, casting used new technology: electrotyping, invented in 1838 by the Prussian polymath Moritz von Jacobi . A patent was granted in 1840 to Thomas Spencer and John Wilson for “Engraving Metals by Voltaic Electricity”. An early use was for making permanenet copies of photographs, but it seems also to offer 3d possibilities. (Im not quite clear how it works: the best explanation Ive found so far is here.)

Hall also speculates on the interplay between the cast mania and phrenology, invented by Lavater in the late 18th century and developed during the 19th. If you beleive that the shape of the skull demonstrates the type of personality and mind inside it, then exact replicas of that skull become valuable psychological and historial documents. NB: (Some people still believe in phrenology.)

What I cant find out is why the casting craze seems to have died away. The service is still offered – see also here. But you dont hear of museums collecting casts of foreign sculptures. Is it because we feel that we can photograph them, and thats enough? Its possible to make precise digital scans (see this posting), but surely much more expensive than slapping a mould around the original. Maybe curators now regard this as too dangerous for the original, though the V&As experience suggests that in some cases it has preserved rather than damaged the originals form. Maybe we dont feel the same need to see copies of Michelangelos sculpture when we can more easily go to Italy and see the originals. Or maybe we feel that videos and 2d images, or computer panoramas, give as good a reproduction as we need? (See earlier postings on virtual tourism: to what extent do most of us really look at works of art in more detail than a 3d java panorama widget offers?)

An interesting parallel with modern techniques and attitudes. It raises the usual philosophical questions about the value of the unique art object; it also shows that the technology to reproduce objects was available 150 years ago and (for a time) widely used; and it raises the question of why we no longer appear to do it on any scale.

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