In the spring of 2019 we were in London and took the morning off to visit the Victoria and Albert Museum. I’ve been to the museum a number of times before, but for some reason, I never visited the Cast Collection. This time, we headed to that gallery first. All I can say it was one of those “wow” moments. I kept wondering why I hadn’t made the effort to go down that particular corridor on my previous visits. Perhaps it had something to do with plaster casts being equated with copies – a word that brings to mind fakes and forgeries. I thought they could never replace the experience of the originals.
After my initial glance into the two storey high rooms, I realised just how wrong I had been. The gallery with its magnificent display of sculpture and architectural elements is a grand testament to Victorian ingenuity and a demonstration of their desire to collect and categorise.
Naturally, I found myself particularly attracted to the doors. Yes, there are many door replicas in the collection. Even though I knew some of them were plaster (a fact reinforced by the labels) they looked nothing like plaster. Two fine examples of painted plaster artistry were these copies of Norwegian carved wooden church door surrounds from the 11th century AD. They were created in 1882 around the time the churches were demolished. You can see they still retain some of that Viking style of curvilinear interlocking animal motifs. Must be a devil to dust.
Dating to about the same time is this upper portion of a wooden door from Cologne (from the church of St Maria im Kapitol) created in painted plaster about 1873. It depicts in relief scenes from the life of Christ.
The larger, grander European cathedral doors were created as electroypes. The first one below was commissioned by the museum around 1869 to be created from the 12th century bronze door from the south transept of the Pisa Cathedral. I have seen the original and it was difficult to tell the difference. The second one is an 1874 electrotype copy of the 11th century bronze door of Hildesheim Cathedral in Germany.
I particularly liked the lion headed door pulls. The doors exhibits exquisite detail. These 19th century (copy) artists were just as creative as their 11th and 12th century counterparts.
Have a look at Norm’s blog, Thursday Doors for more stories of fascinating buildings and their doors. And, if you want, the video below is about the history of the collection from its inception at the Great Exhibition of 1851 held in the Crystal Palace to the South Kensington Museum (now called the Victoria and Albert Museum).