Stories from Hospitalfield: Plaster Casts by Brucciani & Co.

The plaster casts at Hospitalfield sit on polished tables or are propped up on mantelpieces but most are in store. They are more than simply interesting decorative objects, they tell their own unique story of the nature and direction of art education in the 19th-century and they evocatively furnish the story of the early days of the ‘experiment’; a vision for a new Art school in Arbroath, established in 1901.

Opening the minute books of the first meetings of the Trustees of Hospitalfield, large, leather bound, hand-written volumes, we see, as we decipher the spidery hand writing, a disagreement that took place in the first years after the death of Patrick Allan Fraser in 1890. An argument broke out between those who thought developing a rural art school in Arbroath, overlooking the North Sea, at Hospitalfield House was a wonderful and optimistic ‘experiment’ and others who thought it was a foolish plan. The latter group held the view that the endowment money should be made available to artists who wished to study in established art schools in Glasgow, Edinburgh or London.

The Trust was set up to act on the bequest of Patrick and Elizabeth Allan Fraser and the Trustee’s role was to interpret the detailed bequest that had originally been written by the couple thirty years before Allan Fraser’s death. Their overall intention was to leave the estate ‘for the advancement of Art’ and whilst the bequest is detailed clearly there was a view that ideas were outdated and should be interpreted with this in mind.

The Trustees could not agree on a shared plan and the minutes show lively debate with the artist John Hutchison as the main dissenting voice. He was so against the ‘experiment’ of establishing a new Art School at such a remote location as Arbroath that he resigned leaving the remaining Trustees to proceed with their imagining, on Allan Fraser’s behalf, a new model: an art school that sat between the accepted idea of the academy and the model of the museum, yet an academy and a museum that was also a home in what was then, a very rural setting.

The Trustees set about the task of appointing a Governor, ‘a Certified Teacher in the South Kensington Establishment’, who would live at Hospitalfield and undertake the role of master to the students. It was in this endeavour that Trustee William Kid Macdonald visited the Herkomer Art School, the home of the artist Professor Hubert von Herkomer situated in Bushey north of London. The vast house named Lululaund after Herkomer’s wife Lulu Griffith, was run as a successful Art School between 1883 and 1904.

The facility was a small, independent and pioneering institution that had built a national reputation, representing an attractive model for the Trustees at Hospitalfield. Macdonald met at Lululaund the Scottish painter George Harcourt who was then in the position of Assistant Professor. Harcourt was a highly regarded portrait painter who, as a talented student, had excelled under the tuition of Herkomer and went on to undertake the teaching position at the institution. Macdonald was impressed with Harcourt and took the opportunity to share with him the ambitions of the Trust at Hospitalfield and he described the plans for a new Art School at Arbroath.

The young Harcourt was ‘greatly interested in the contemplated Scheme’ and travelled to visit Hospitalfield in August 1900 to meet the Trustees. Shortly after this he committed to taking the role to lead this new art school, but only once Professor von Herkomer had found a suitable replacement at Lululaund. Harcourt entered his duties as the first Governor at Hospitalfield on 1 October 1901 at the age of 33, and came to live at Hospitalfield House with his wife and three young children, to set about realising the ‘experiment’ of the new Art School at Arbroath.

The Trustees continued to be active in their work in establishing the school. They used the Allan-Fraser endowment to appoint an architect, Mr David Robertson ARSA, who designed the new Studios. These wonderful classic studios were completed in 1901. Alterations were made to Hospitalfield House in order to provide for the accommodation of the first students who were enrolled early in 1902.

So the art school was born emerging from a mid-Victorian bequest in to the early part of the 20th century. History shows that the rural location did act as a retention to a certain conservatism within the teaching in the early 20th century but as we know it is not the schools that tend to lead change but the students.

In his first report to the Trustees George Harcourt describes his curriculum:

Work was begun at the College on February 2nd 1902. The work has consisted of drawing from the Antique, drawing and painting the head from life and drawing from the living (undraped) model. Some modelling in clay has also been done.

George Harcourt, like his teacher Professor von Herkomer and most of his contemporaries, was trained under the South Kensington Schools system, a standardised curriculum of art education which fostered the master-student relationship and emphasised the benefit of drawing from the Antique. Harcourt proceeded by acquiring the facilities at Hospitalfield that were the norm required by the students. This included buying a substantial collection of plaster casts made after examples of antiquity. The finest place to purchase such a collection at that time was Domenico Brucciani’s famous Gallery of Casts in Covent Garden, London.

Domenico Brucciani was the most prolific maker of plaster casts, also known as a ‘formari’, in 19th-century Britain, constructing a network of fellow Italian émigré formatori from premises at Russel Street. The firm emerged during a period when the production of facsimiles in a range of media became a lucrative trade across Europe. D.Brucciani & Co. established strategic links with the British Museums and the South Kensington Museum (later the V&A Museums) supplying the casts for the internationally renowned Cast Courts of the V&A Museum. As approved suppliers for the Science and Art Department, part of the South Kensington System, the firm supplied their casts to educational institutions around the globe through their Catalogue of Casts for Schools. Institutions such as The Allan Fraser Art School at Hospitalfield looking to furnish their facilities with casts could select from a wide range including statues and statuettes, busts, masks and sections of the face, legs, arms, feet and hands as well as architectural examples.

Detail from Catalogue of casts for schools which the Board of Education considers suitable for schools and classes receiving grants from it (London: Hudson & Kearns, 1906), p. 22.

Many examples from this original purchase still exist at Hospitalfield, bearing the stamp of the famous firm. These objects are inherently fragile and several of them have suffered through their employment as learning tools during the last century and show signs of damage. The Cast of the Bust of Hermes (the original attributed to Praxiteles, c. 350-330 BC) is recognisable to anyone who has visited the Studios at Hospitalfield where it sits on the mantelpiece of the massive fireplace in the Patrick Allan-Fraser Studio. The D.Brucciani & Co cast of the head of St Cecilia is currently on display at Hospitalfield House, however most of the Hospitalfield examples are held in store. They include the full set of the five Orders of Architecture, including Tuscan, Doric and Corinthian types and ornaments and pilasters from the renaissance and gothic reliefs. Students were encouraged to learn anatomy and therefore some examples are excoriated body parts, where the cast shows the foot or hand after the removal of the skin where tendons and joints can be seen and studied. Harcourt ensured that Hospitalfield was supplied with some of Brucciani & Co’s most famous examples in the form of casts of the sections of the face of Michaelangelo’s David, including the eye, ear and mouth, considered amongst the most perfect examples of sculptural proportion.

Reference: Wade, Rebecca (2018), Domenico Brucciani and the Formatori of Nineteenth-Century Britain, Bloomsbury

Images: Plaster Cast of the mouth of of David by Michelangelo), Plaster Cast of a foot, Plaster Cast of an excoriated hand, Plaster Cast of part of an arm, Students at Hospitalfield with Plaster Casts c. 1930, Artists Mary Redmond making preparations for the installation of the Sculpture Commission at Hospitalfield 2017 (all images courtesy of The Hospitalfield Trust)