Just a handful of British monuments are replicated – including medieval effigies of knights from London’s Templar Church, which are precious because the originals were badly damaged in the blitz. German art treasures are displayed near the Templar effigies. There’s an immense flowing monument by Adam Kraft, carved in 1490-2, that’s a wonder of Renaissance Nuremberg: the V&A’s beautiful pale cast of this teeming panoramic relief lets you contemplate the pitiful faces of Christ’s mourners as they lower his body into its tomb. From Germany we jump to Prague in a black replica of the Czech city’s 14th-century statue of St George Slaying the Dragon. There are even several copies of wonderful works from Belgium itself, dreary home, modern Britons have been told so often, of EU sterility. The most impressive is a soaring pinnacle of columns, statues and spires from a church in Zoutleeuw.
Long before the foundation of the EU, the Victoria and Albert Museum was at the forefront of a pan-European cultural movement. In 1867, its first director Henry Cole got 19 European rulers to sign a treaty that committed them to exchanging copies of their countries’ art treasures. The V&A’s Trajan’s Column, for instance, was reproduced from a copy originally made for Napoleon III of France.
It’s hard to enter the mentality of Cole and his contemporaries. We’re tempted to see these casts as postmodern proof that a “fake” is as good as the real thing. Which is in fact the opposite of what the Victorians intended. The point of these casts is to help you learn Europe’s art history – to study, from the best examples, the Romanesque, gothic, and Renaissance – so that when, if, you can travel for yourself to Granada or Florence, you will know what you are looking at.
The V&A’s comprehensive restoration of these masterly copies, freeing them from dust and equipping them with modern labels and a new section on the history and technology of artistic reproduction, is true to that original purpose. Henry Cole hoped that visitors to the V&A would be inspired by its cast of David to go to Italy and see the original, so much more alive and powerful than any copy. It’s a sad irony that these galleries reopen as Britain stumbles towards exit from the EU.
These galleries are full of monuments to a Britain that understood and acknowledged its Europe cultural heritage and was full of passion for the continent’s art. The Europe we are rejecting is preserved here in a time capsule. If we could truly understand what made our ancestors create this plaster-cast theme park we might start to heal the narrowing of the British mind. There is a melancholy to casts. From death masks to the sepulchral sculptures of Rachel Whiteread, casting preserves what has been lost. A face, a house – or Europe.