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V&A refurbished gallery reopens after conservators work on 19th-century plasters

Cleaning uncovers makers’ pioneering techniques and casts new light on plaster casts

London

The Victoria and Albert Museum in London last month celebrated the reopening of its newly renamed Weston Cast Court, formerly called the Italian Cast Court, after an ambitious project to conserve the casts and restore the gallery to its original Victorian splendour. Missing, but not missed, from the festivities was a century’s worth of dirt, which conservators spent two years painstakingly removing from around 60 casts, including those of Ghiberti’s five-metre-tall bronze doors from the Baptistery in Florence and Michelangelo’s David, 1501-04, a peace offering from the Grand Duke of Tuscany to Queen Victoria after he thwarted an attempt by the National Gallery in London to export a painting by Ghirlandaio from Italy.

“It was difficult to appreciate the craftsmanship of these works before the project because of the accumulation of dirt,” says Victor Borges, a senior sculpture conservator at the museum. The cleaned 19th-century casts are in stark contrast to those from the second cast court, which features Northern European and Spanish works that have yet to undergo treatment. A new latex poultice, developed by the private Spanish firm Albayalde Restauro to clean superficial and ingrained dirt from the delicate surface of plaster casts, was among several methods used to clean the works.

Pioneering techniques

One of the goals of the project was to learn more about how the casts were made. Many of the techniques used were pioneering for their time. One example is the plaster cast of Michelangelo’s Moses, 1513-42, made by Desachy in around 1858 and bought directly from the French cast-maker for £45. “It’s a fibrous plaster work… a new technique patented by Desachy. It’s lighter and the walls are a lot thinner than other types of plaster casts,” Borges says. “With each cast we worked on, we began to understand more about the rest of the pieces,” says Charlotte Hubbard, the museum’s head sculpture conservator.

The team wanted people to be able to once again identify these pieces as casts without erasing the history of the objects during their treatment. “We didn’t want to strip back clues related to their manufacture or recent history,” Borges says. “There was definitely a degree of subtlety in what we were doing,” Hubbard adds.

Some unexpected items were found inside the casts, including ostrich feathers, which were probably used to dust the works. A rolled-up newspaper from the 1930s was discovered inside the cast of the 16th-century tomb of Cardinal Ascanio Sforza by Andrea Sansovino. Glass shards were found on top of some of the works; these could have been left over from when the roof was damaged during the Second World War. What lay behind the casts also proved interesting, especially for Diana Heath, the museum’s senior metals conservator, who discovered around 12cm of dust behind the electrotype cast of Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise, 1425-52. “That’s around 140 years’ worth of dust,” she says, noting that the piece had probably not been moved since the cast courts opened in 1873. She removed sticky dirt and gold paint from the doors.

Hubbard admits that she initially found the project daunting, but that it ended up being a lot more enjoyable than she had anticipated. “There have been so many different aspects to the project, and we’ve uncovered a lot of information about plaster-cast workshops and how these plaster casts were made,” she says. “It’s not been nearly as bad as I thought it would be.”

“These are time capsules of original objects,” Borges says. “It’s wonderful to be able to work on a collection that had been waiting to be treated since the 1920s, to give it the care it deserves and allow it to tell its secrets.”

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'V&A casts new light on plaster casts'