While changing values in art education have led to the destruction of many of the world’s cast collections, the Edinburgh collection represents a remarkable, though partial, survival still displayed in the setting designed for it between 1907 and 1911. The collection was acquired for teaching students drawing of the ideal, that is, classical human form. This studio was known as the ‘Antique School’, and its counterpart, the ‘Life School’, taught students drawing of the live or non-ideal human form.
Despite many losses it remains a remarkably coherent example of an educational cast collection. Another aspect that makes this one of the most distinguished cast collections in Europe is the outstanding quality of the casts acquired in over 100 years of its history. After the mid-nineteenth century casts were supplied to educational institutions all over the world on an industrial scale by firms such as Brucciani, but the archives of the Edinburgh collection enable us to trace the acquisition of individual, specially commissioned casts some of which record details of sculpture since lost by erosion and accident. The collection’s history contributes to our understanding of the role of art education in Edinburgh during the late Enlightenment, and its contribution to the city as the ‘Athens of the North’.
The plaster casts belonged to the former Trustees Academy (the design school of the Board of Trustees for Manufactures and Fisheries in Scotland) in Edinburgh, the first public school of art in Britain founded in 1760. They were acquired for training ornamental artists in draughtsmanship. From the 1820s the collection was housed in the Royal Scottish Academy building on Princes Street (formerly the Royal Institution) – a Doric ‘temple’ of the arts modelled on the Parthenon of Athens by W. H. Playfair in 1823 and further enlarged by him in 1836. When the building’s interior was destroyed to adapt it for the use of the Royal Scottish Academy, the casts were transferred to the newly founded Edinburgh College of Art.
The Athenian casts in the collection are outstanding. Unusually the Trustees had acquired some Parthenon casts made for them shortly before Lord Elgin sold his entire collection to the British Museum in 1816. Elgin was so impressed by the educational ambitions of the Trustees Academy that in 1827 he donated casts of four panels of the frieze of the Temple of Nike Apteros and metopes (large sculpted panels on the outer frieze of the Doric temple) from the Temple of Hephaestus in Athens from his personal collection. The Elgin Gift set in motion a significant and enduring policy of acquiring only the best first or second impression casts from expert moulders and sculptors.
Italian casts, 1820s and 1830s
From the 1820s the agents of the Trustees Academy in Italy commissioned a number of moulds: in 1822 they obtained a ‘first impression’ of the Graeco-Roman marble of the Dying Gaul in the Capitoline Museum in Rome which cost 45 Crowns, and in 1831 they obtained permission to mould The Dead Christ from Michelangelo’s Pietà in St. Peter’s, Rome. A series of casts were acquired in Florence in 1836: the Gates of Paradise and the Dying Adonis, and possibly other Florentine casts shipped to Edinburgh in that year, were originally commissioned by the French neoclassical painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres for the French Academy in Rome. It appears two sets of casts were made, and the Trustees were able to acquire these invaluable pieces for their collection.
In 1835 the Albacini Collection of 255 Graeco-Roman busts, considered to be the best of its kind then available, were imported from Florence. The Trustees’ architect, W. H. Playfair, designed the shelves for their display in the building at the Mound.
Parthenon casts from the British Museum
In 1837 the Trustees purchased a complete set of Parthenon casts from the British Museum. All of these, except for the West Frieze casts, were made by Richard Westmacott. Elgin had never removed the marbles of the West Frieze from the temple – instead he had had them moulded. The moulds were sold to the British Museum (with the marbles), and two sets of casts were struck from them. These are known as the ‘Elgin Set’. Until now it has been thought that immediately afterwards the moulds were destroyed. However, the Trustees’ archives show that the moulder Pietro Sarti owned these moulds in 1836, but it remains unclear how these survived or how they came to be in Sarti’s possession. A recent comparison of the seam lines on the College’s casts with the ‘Elgin Set’ in London shows that the two sets have been made from the same original moulds. The Elgin archives contain the receipts of Elgin’s Italian formatori (mould makers), Bernardino Ledus and Vincenzo Rosati, for the making of the moulds in Athens in 1802.
Two Parthenon pediment sculptures – the Seated Goddesses and the Reclining Goddesses had been made shortly before 1830 as a special commission for the French government and the Vatican but as they were never delivered they were purchased for Edinburgh. These and the remained of the casts made by Westmacott were installed in Edinburgh in 1839.
The new building in Lauriston provided the governors of the College with more space for large architectural casts. These included a special commission in 1912, at the request of Sir Robert Rowand Anderson, for casts of the magnificent Princess Margaret’s Tomb and the Sedilia from Lincluden Collegiate Church (c.1456), and in the same year Sir Robert Lorimer, architect and governor, travelled to Belgium and France to buy new casts. One of these is probably the cast of the late mediaeval Tomb of Ferry de Gros, Lord of Dyeghem Nieunland.