BIAD Plaster Cast Collection

Scope and Content

The collection is made up of 22 plaster casts of famous sculptural pieces from National and International Collections. These include mainly examples of Ancient sculpture, in particular sculptures from the Parthenon in Athens in Greece. There are also copies of Renaissance pieces.

An art education teaching school in Birmingham first came into being in 1843 - known then as the Birmingham School of Design. At this time, like other regional art schools the teaching followed The National Course of Instruction for Government Schools of Art in Britain , as laid down by the Department of Practical Art within the Board of Trade, then under the influence of Henry Cole. The syllabus of this course focused on learning by practice and imitation, believing that by copying the best examples, students could learn their artistic skills, and so continuing the long tradition of artistic apprenticeships first started by the Renaissance artist of Italy. Within this syllabus, various objects and ornaments from history were actually prescribed for use, for example at stage 8 when studying human or animal figures it was suggested to use the Parthenon Frieze. The Birmingham School of Art in common with various other schools in this country and abroad, developed its own collection of plaster casts for students and teachers to use.

Artists and students have used plaster casts of original sculpture from classical antiquity and classical archaeology to assist with their study for hundreds of years. Even the Ancient Romans produced copies of earlier Greek statues for study. The first artist to have collected plaster casts is thought to have been an Italian fifteenth-century painter Francesco Squarcione, who used them to assist with the training of his apprentices. The style of ancient sculpture was much revered by the Renaissance artists of this time including both Michangelo and Donatello. The study of ancient classical sculpture, through drawing, painting and modelling formed a large part of an artist's apprenticeship. Since this time, this tradition has continued, with various individuals and institutions starting their own plaster cast collections. The first university to assemble a collection of this kind was in Göttingen in 1767. It was at this time that plaster casts were becoming more widely available as more ancient discoveries were made, and the fabrication and transportation of these often-huge pieces became more affordable.

The decline in the making and collecting of casts appears to have come about with the Great War of 1914-1918. The ideas of classical civilisation being the pinnacle of taste fell from favour, halting the reproduction of classical sculpture in plaster cast forms.

The exact details of when and where these plaster casts were acquired is not known, they may have been donated to the Birmingham Society of Arts c.1820 or they maybe later examples from the late-nineteenth or early twentieth century. A number of the casts are recent copies made from other casts already in the collection; these have been identified where known.

Administrative / Biographical History

Birmingham Government School of Design first opened in 1843 at Somerset House, where basic drawing and painting skills were taught. The school changed its name in 1853 becoming the Birmingham Government School of Ornamental Art - shortened to just the School of Art. The School of Art adopted the National Course of Instruction , a 23 stage programme for teaching art and design developed by Henry Cole. This teaching proved very popular and due to problems with overcrowding in classes, the school moved to larger premises in 1858. The school quickly outgrew these new premises as well. However, it was not until 1877 with the appointment of Edward R Taylor as the Head of the school that he pushed for a move to larger facilities. His persuasion, growing numbers of students as well as good examination results, succeeded in convincing the Birmingham Committee to sponsor the building of new premises.

In 1884 the school became Birmingham Municipal School of Arts and Crafts - the first municipal school in the country and moved to the new premises designed by John Chamberlain in Margaret Street, Birmingham. The influence of the Arts and Crafts Movement - which had always been popular in Birmingham and the needs of the local employers and employees caused a change in the direction teaching began to take at the school at this time. Although drawing and painting continued to be important, more practical based courses and teaching were developed for example in metalworking, needlework, and stained glass. Obviously these practical subjects needed much more space and equipment for them to take place, so an extension was built to the school in 1892.

In 1890 to serve specifically the needs of the local jewellery trade, the Vittoria Street School of Jewellery and Silversmithing was opened in the heart of the Jewellery quarter. Robert Catterson-Smith was head of this school until 1903, where upon he became the Head of the School of Art due to Taylor's retirement. Arthur Gaskin took all the head-ship at the School of Jewellery, where he remained for the next twenty years. The schools success continued at its new home, and Birmingham students gained great success in many National Government Prizes and Awards. A system of elementary Branch schools teaching art and design to children from as young as 12 in Birmingham, had first been started in the mid 1850s. The success of these continued to grow with 15 such schools existing in across Birmingham in 1900.

Enrolments continued to increase until the First World War, after which the School became the College of Art and Design. Initial plans made in 1933, were finally completed in 1964 after the Second World War when further new premises were built at Gosta Green to accommodate new design departments. The College of Art and Design continued to be independent until 1971, when along with five other Birmingham colleges it was merged to form the City of Birmingham Polytechnic. In 1975 three further colleges joined the Polytechnic and 1988 saw Bournville College of Art also join. This resulted in Birmingham Institute of Art and Design being created, which incorporates Bournville College of Art, School of Art at Margaret Street and the Gosta Green facility. The polytechnic was formally designated a university as the University of Central England in Birmingham (UCE) in 1992. It was renamed Birmingham City University in 2007.


Alphabetically by title.

Access Information

The Arts, Design and Media Archive at the Parkside Building is currently closed due to the COVID-19 restrictions. Please email any inquiries to


This description was compiled by Sian Everitt.

Other Finding Aids

A list of all the casts is available and a separate file on each cast in the collection is available.

Custodial History

The collection has been with the School of Art for some time, having possibly been created from a previous collection acquired by the Birmingham Society of Artists in the 1820s.


None expected.