Case Study 13: The craft of carved stone replicas

Sally Foster

From the earliest years of the Victorian period, replicas of early medieval carved stones in Scotland were made for display in newly founded museums, and for exhibition to antiquarians at their meetings. Such copies were a sought-after commodity.

The earliest known Scottish plaster casts of early medieval carved stones were made of the St Andrews Sarcophagus in 1839. The Fifeshire Literary, Science and Philosophical Society commissioned Mr Ross, a Cupar-based plasterer, to make copies for their new museum, and it appears that he subsequently made further copies for museums in Edinburgh, Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Dublin. George Buist, who arranged the 1839 manufacture, wanted the Sarcophagus to be displayed as a box. Being a composite and fragmentary monument, this meant that the craftsman had to make some compromises in terms of how he created the plaster cast reconstruction. These can be established by close comparison of the surviving plaster casts with the original, and are also important because of the legacy of what the craftsman did (Foster et al. 2014; Foster 2016).

Replicas are still made today, often as an open-air substitute for a monument that has been moved inside for its protection. The St John’s Cross replica on Iona will be 50 years old in 2020. Its replication in concrete was a technically accomplished feat that involved a team of artists, craftsmen, conservators and many others in its production in Edinburgh and transportation to Iona, and before that in the idea of creating it, and getting the funds for this. Carefully thought-out decisions were made at the time about how to create a reconstruction from the fragmentary surviving remains. This enterprising story is not yet presented to the visitors to Iona.

A colour photo of a replica relief plaster cast showing carved people and writhing animals

Figure 1: A section of the plaster cast of the St Andrews Sarcophagus now in the St Andrews Museum. © Doug Simpson

A colour photo of the side of a plaster case with the end of iron rods visible

Figure 2: A cross-section through the 1849 plaster cast of the St Andrews Sarcophagus in the NMS shows how the craftsman reinforced it with iron rods. The cast was presumably cut up because the NMAS, as it then was, wanted to correct Mr Ross’s cast, which had reversed the arrangement of the monument’s corner slabs. © Doug Simpson

Black and white front colour photo with four men stood around a large replica stone cross in a graveyard

Figure 3: The 1971 cover of Coracle shows Mr Alastair MacKenzie (second from left) and three of the employees of Murdoch MacKenzie Ltd—Joe Findlay, Jock Logan and Remo Tonietti—who assisted with the erection of the St John’s Cross replica in June 1970. © Murdo MacKenzie and Iona Community

Postscript (July 2020)

Since this case study was written in 2016, there have been lots of developments in relation to research on historic replicas, reinforcing changing ideas about authenticity, value, significance, and the role of craft and craftsmanship in this. Foster and Jones have applied a cultural biographical approach to the life of the St John’s Cross and its replica(s), involving ethnographic fieldwork to understand contemporary social values. See their introduction to My Life as a Replica: St John’s Cross, Iona here.

Informed by this research, in March 2020, HES designated the 1970 replica at Category A, and on-site interpretation will for the first time talk about the replica in its own right. A further development, informed by this research, New Futures for Replicas is a new online resource for people creating, using and caring for replicas. This includes a leaflet with Principles and Guidance for Museums and Heritage. The approach developed in this independent statement, co-produced by international researchers, heritage and museum practitioners led by Foster and Jones, reflects the sort of ideas espoused in this ScARF, although it applies to all sorts of replicas, not just of carved stones. The role of craft, craftsmanship and materiality is emphasised, in its own right, as part of the biography of the replicas, and how people can develop their ‘felt’ relationships with them.

Return to Section 4.3.1: Historical

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