[photo: View of Melbourne’s casts in 1872 (1 of 2 albumen silver photographs): detail (SLV H96.160/1789)]

Introduction to Melbourne’s former plaster cast collection

The production of replicas of famous statues, already widespread in the ancient Roman period, became a global phenomenon after 1850, with the availability of cheaper, good quality plaster casts. These were produced commercially by various manufacturers, notably Brucciani & Co., the major British supplier of casts at the time, who also supervised the British Museum’s separate production of plaster replicas of statuary in its collections.

This development provided the perfect opportunity for many more recently established museums to assemble a comprehensive collection of copies of antique sculpture, for a modest outlay, in a period when the idea of Greco-Roman culture as the pinnacle of artistic achievement was still widely accepted. The idea obviously appealed to Sir Redmond Barry and his colleagues, as plans were made to initiate the Melbourne Public Library’s art collections. Accordingly, a substantial order was placed with Brucciani for a group of antique casts, together with selected Renaissance and 18th/19th-century statues and reliefs (especially neoclassical works), and a series of plaster busts of famous men (for more detailed remarks, see separate lists as noted below).

As Ann Galbally observes, the casts ordered in 1860-62 formed only one component of a grand plan devised by Redmond Barry, including coins, medals, and architectural photographs (all acquired at the same time); but further planned purchases of casts of pre-classical and medieval sculpture did not proceed (apart from the Assyrian casts: see I.15). Barry took particular care with his choice of casts after antique statues and reliefs, selecting copies of major Roman and Greco-Roman statues, and several classical Greek examples, including a number of the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum.

Besides the casts purchased with an initial government grant, Barry also mobilized various prominent Victorians, and even members of his own family (see e.g. I.26, and I.95), to donate individual casts during subsequent years; donors are identified wherever possible. For details, see Casts – Donors. Charles Summers was also closely involved, repairing casts damaged during the first shipment from London in 1860-61 (see Galbally, “Lost museum,” 1988, p.48n.), and also offering advice (see I.16). Sculptors James Scurry and Marshall Wood also presented casts later (refer linked entries for details).

The bulk of Melbourne’s cast collection was already in place by the late 1860s, by which time a dedicated exhibition space had been constructed, in the new “sculpture gallery” in the north wing adjoining Latrobe Street. Photographs taken from the late 1860s onwards document the changing arrangement of the casts in this truss-roofed space: see e.g. photo above. NB for a complete list of the engraved and photographic overviews of Melbourne’s casts from 1863 to 1905, with comments, see now Casts – Overviews.

By 1870, of course (when the title National Gallery of Victoria was officially adopted), Melbourne’s art collection had changed considerably, with the collection of original works of art now taking increasing precedence, and Barry’s initial classical focus losing something of its original force (for this last point, see Galbally in LaTrobe Journal no.73, 2004). Nevertheless, plaster casts of both antique and more modern sculptures continued to be acquired after 1870. In 1872, for example, there was a substantial new purchase from Brucciani of casts of some 20 busts of famous individuals: see now II.13 etc. And individual casts of larger statues and groups continued to be acquired: see I.3, I.13 etc.

By 1904, a very substantial collection of over 300 casts had been assembled, although by that time only some of them were on display, and the collection as a whole had evidently come increasingly to be seen as “belonging to” the National Gallery School.

From 1900 (or perhaps even slightly earlier), casts began to be either lent out or de-accessioned permanently from the collection. The NGV stock-book lists several such loans and de-accessions in 1900, 1908 and 1909; loans were recorded to both the Working Men’s College, now RMIT University, and to the Trustees of the Exhibition Building. More detailed lists of casts lent to the Exhibition Building were also published in in AR 1908-1909. Unfortunately these included several original plaster sculptures, evidently mistaken for replicas: see in particular * Summers (Charles) Lynceus and Hypermnestra {1876} Loc? [SC] and * Scurry Charles Summers {1884} Loc? [SC], neither of which appears to have survived the process.

There was still enough of the collection of casts to impress them on the memory of Australian novelist George Johnston, a student at the Gallery School in the early 1930s, who later recalled the “Antique School” as “an unnerving, jolting sort of place,… filled with innumerable chalk-white plaster casts of antique Greek, Graeco-Roman and Roman nude statuary posed under bare electric bulbs” (My Brother Jack, 1964).

But by the 1930s the fate of Melbourne’s plaster casts was all too clear – one that inevitably befell many other similar collections during the first half of the 20th century. After further de-accessioning, the remnants, apart from a few busts still remaining in the SLV today (e.g. II.21) were auctioned off or simply given away during the early 1940s: see e.g. I.96.

Wherever possible, the post-1904 history of all casts is noted, referring to relevant details in the NGV stock-book and Annual Reports; see also the 1908 Melbourne Age report on casts deemed surplus to requirements: see “Municipal Statuary” (1908), sub-headlined “Some Quaint Figures,” a phrase which clearly points to changing taste, even in the opening decade of the 20th century, as a key contributing factor in the dismantling of the cast collection. For my own recent overview of this history, see Gregory, “Rise and fall of Melbourne’s plaster cast collection” (2021).

The current whereabouts of the few surviving extant casts is recorded. A notable recent example is the cast of the statue of Sophocles (I.98), as advised by its current Melbourne owner in 2023.

Further details

Summary details of the casts formerly in the collection are provided here, given the insights they provide into the character of Melbourne’s early art collections as a whole; works are listed under three main headings as follows:

Casts – I. Statues, statuettes & reliefs

Casts – II. Busts & heads (including both the series of plaster busts of “famous personages” acquired from 1860 onwards, and also other plaster busts, heads and masks based on antique and more modern originals)

Casts – III. Miscellaneous (including casts used primarily by the National Gallery School)

See also Casts – Overviews and Casts – Donors.

NB throughout, “Summers list 1861” denotes casts listed in Nov.1861 as damaged in transit from England and repaired by Charles Summers, as published by Ann Galbally, “Lost museum” (1988), p.48, n.32. “Donations 1863” refers to the list published in The Age, 25 April 1863, p.5, providing details of donations of casts (etc.) “procured by Sir Redmond Barry while in Europe” (available via Trove); all other references and abbreviations as listed in Bibliography.


Ann Galbally has published several detailed studies of the early history of Melbourne’s cast collection: see especially Galbally, “Lost museum” (1988); Galbally & others, First Collections (1992), esp.pp.80ff., and Galbally, “Patron of the Arts at the Antipodes,” LaTrobe Journal no.73 (Autumn 2004), pp.4-18 (special issue on Redmond Barry).

For issues of taste in relation to collecting antique statues and copies, see Haskell & Penny, Taste and the Antique (1981); and for plaster casts in particular, see e.g. R.Fredericksen & E.Marquand, Plaster Casts: Making, Collecting and Displaying from Classical Antiquity to the Present, De Gruyter, 2010. For Brucciani, see Rebecca Wade, Domenico Brucciani and the Formatori of Nineteenth-Century Britain, Bloomsbury, 2018. A number of the catalogues of plaster casts offered for sale by Brucciani & Co. are available (some of them online)