Plaster figure makers: a short history

1. Developments in the plaster figure trade
2. The use of plaster casts in the early 19th century
3. Italian figure makers in the 19th century
4. Collecting by museums and academies
5. Sculptors’ moulders from 1880

In the early 19th century, Italian figure makers began to come to Britain in increasing numbers to produce ornaments for town and country houses and to sell cheap plaster figures as an itinerant trade. It was also a time when the demand for bronze statues was growing as a result of the desire to commemorate the wartime heroes and political leaders of the day through public statues and church monuments. While at first these two activities, plaster figure making and bronze sculpture founding, were largely separate, as the century progressed some plaster figure makers came to specialise as sculptors’ moulders and also began to have an impact on the trade in electrotype reproductions. For more details on bronze founders, see Bronze sculpture founders: a short history.

The market for plaster figures reached its height in the 19th century. Such figures were used to ornament interiors from the grandest country houses to the most ordinary homes. They were also used as sources of inspiration for artists, designers and others, whether in artists’ studios or in museums and academies. There was also a period when plaster phrenological heads were a focus for the study of the human head.

1. Developments in the plaster figure trade

William Blake, by James Deville, published 1823 - NPG 1809 - © National Portrait Gallery, London

Fig. 1. William Blake, plaster cast of head
by James De Ville, published 1823
(National Portrait Gallery).

Plaster figures have been used in one form or another for centuries. This account takes up where Timothy Clifford’s essay, The Plaster Shops of the Rococo and Neo-Classical Era in Britain leaves off (Clifford 1992). Clifford established the importance of such figure sellers in 18th-century Britain, especially in London, and their role in supplying figures and plasterwork for ornamenting and lighting interiors, and for use as models for manufacturers such as Wedgwood. He identified the importance of the Act of Parliament passed in 1798 relating to ‘Making New Models and Casts of Busts’, a form of copyright which conferred exclusive rights for 14 years on persons who created new models or casts of human or animal figures if marked with publication details. A further act was passed in 1814. As a result, many 19th-century plaster figures are marked with the maker’s name. Clifford saw the great boom in plaster shops as dwindling and collapsing in the 1830s but it is now clear that while the market for figures for lighting and furniture declined, there was a growing interest in collecting plaster casts for museums and academies, as well as a taste for more modest figures in ordinary homes.

The leading English figure makers of the late 18th century were in retreat: John Cheere died in 1787, James Hoskins in 1791, William Collins in 1793, Charles Harris in 1795, Richard Parker in 1799 and John Flaxman senior in 1803. The younger generation of English-born makers, with a few exceptions such as Robert Shout, did not play such a significant part in the popular market and diversified into related trades as did James Cockaine, James De Ville, Humphrey Hopper and William Pink. They were competing against an influx of Italian figure makers. John Baptist Giannelli was in London by 1777, Anthony Sartini by 1785, Bartholomew Papera by about 1789 and Ambrose Pelligrini by 1790. They met with considerable success and were followed by Matthew Mazzoni by c.1803, Peter Sarti by 1816, Lewis Brucciani in c.1820 and Domenico Cardosi and Giovanni Franchi by c.1830, as well as others. In the case of Papera, we know that he built up a remarkable clientele of leading figures in society within a few years of arrival, including the Duke of Richmond, the Earl of Warwick, Sir George Beaumont and Sarah Siddons.

Fig.2. Robert Shout’s broadside catalogue (detail),
c.1800-3 (National Portrait Gallery Library).
Advertising more than 300 plaster figures of classical and modern subjects.

To take a single example of the market, the amateur watercolourist and floor cloth manufacturer, John Samuel Hayward (1778-1822), purchased various casts between 1800 and 1817, some from abroad but mainly from leading London figure makers of the time, Flaxman in 1800 and Shout in 1804, but subsequently from Italians, Papera from 1804 until 1817 as his main supplier, Giannelli in 1806 and then Mazzoni in 1816 and 1817 as his next important supplier (summary listing by Robert Barnes from bills for casts supplied to Hayward, V&A National Art Library, MSL/1943/920C).

Unknown man selling plaster figures ('Very Fine Very Cheap'), by and published by John Thomas Smith, published 31 December 1815 - NPG D40098 - © National Portrait Gallery, London

Fig.3. Very Fine. Very Cheap, etching
by John Thomas Smith, published 1815, from his Etchings of Remarkable Beggars, Itinerant Traders and other Persons (National Portrait Gallery).

This development was a matter of comment at the time. Of Flaxman, it was said that he had ‘kept a large shop in the Strand, for the sale of plaster figures, which was not then so hackneyed a trade, as it has now become by the large importation of Italians’ (Gentleman’s Magazine, vol. 97, 1827, p. 273). In London directories, ‘plaster cast figure makers’ of apparently Italian origin, already common at the beginning of the 19th century, dominated as the century progressed (as analysed by Peter Malone). The number of Italian figure makers in and around 'Little Italy' and in the wider Holborn area, peaked in the early 1860s, judging from census records, as the third largest trade undertaken by Italians in the area, after street musicians and picture framemakers (Lucio Sponza, Italian Immigrants in Nineteenth-Century Britain: Realities and Images, 1988, p.328). The trade outside London was smaller but still dominated by Italians: Luke O’Neil in Edinburgh by c.1784 (he was also a firework maker), Pellegrino Mazzotti in Norwich before 1819, Tognieri in Bath by the 1820s and Pieroni in the 1850s, and Papera junior and Andrea Giuntini in Cheltenham in the 1840s, to name but some of the makers active in a few selected centres.

The business of producing plaster figures became associated with immigrant Italian workers, mainly from the province of Lucca, who would come to London in groups and who would sell plaster figures on the streets. Indeed, the image of a youth holding aloft a tray of plaster figures became one of the 19th-century ‘Cries of London’. John Thomas Smith’s etching, Very Fine. Very Cheap (fig.3), shows how well-established this street trade had become in the public imagination by the time of its publication in 1815.

2. The use of plaster casts in the early 19th century

The Private Sitting Room of Sir Thomas Lawrence, published for Mr Keightley, published December 1830 - NPG D37049 - © National Portrait Gallery, London

Fig.4. Sir Thomas Lawrence’s Private Sitting Room, aquatint
published 1830 (National Portrait Gallery).
Showing his collection of classical plaster casts and modern marble busts.

While there had long been an interest in classical antiquity, the arrival of the Elgin marbles in London, and their display at the British Museum from 1816, opened up new markets for plaster casts as museums and academies in Britain and on the Continent began to develop more comprehensive cast collections for teaching purposes and for wider display, as will be discussed in more detail in section 4 below.

For artists, plaster casts could be both an ornament and an inspiration. Sir Thomas Lawrence’s Private Sitting Room (fig.4) was ornamented with an array of classical and other casts. He was not the only artist collecting such casts. The sculptors, Joseph Nollekens and Sir Francis Chantrey, and the artist, Benjamin Robert Haydon, were also active collectors, while the architect, Sir John Soane, chose to ornament his house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields with an array of casts, many chosen towards the end of his life with his proposed museum in mind.

Such casts could serve a practical purpose for artists. Bartholomew Papera would carry ‘new things round to artists in baskets’, according to John Thomas Smith, who tells how Joseph Nollekens welcomed the opportunity to inspect such novelties although, on one occasion, he bridled when Papera named a rival, John Deare as the modeller. It was possible to hire plaster figures, as Nollekens informed his fellow sculptor, Francis Chantrey, ‘You may hire casts at Papera's and Genelli's’, and as the amateur artist, Sarah Harriet Burney, told a friend in 1804, ‘By subscribing a shilling a week to Papara, the Plaisterman, I got what busts or whole length figures I pleased’ – which she could then use in her studies.

There were other aspects to the trade. Plaster casts, generally in the form of classical figures, were used as elegant supports for interior lighting, a trade which reached its height in the early 19th century. Such figures might be bronzed to give them a more solid appearance and to suit the heavy feel of Regency interiors. Suppliers included Peter Chenu, James De Ville, the Giannelli family, Francis Hardenberg, Humphrey Hopper, the Papera family and Robert Shout.

Another specialist side of the plaster trade was the supply of phrenological heads for phrenology, the study of human conduct through the measurement of the skull. This trade began in about 1820 and was extremely popular for several decades. James De Ville in London and Luke O’Neil in Edinburgh were the leading suppliers of such plaster heads. Although the trade declined as the century progressed, plaster figure makers could still be found describing themselves as phrenological bust makers, namely Alfred Mazzoni in 1861 and more especially Ambrose Vago in 1881. The interest in phrenological heads endured into the early 20th century until the subject was substantially discredited.

3. Italian figure makers in the 19th century

Horatio Nelson, Viscount Nelson, by Dominic Cardosi, after Franz Thaller and Matthias Ranson, (1801) - NPG 2668 - © National Portrait Gallery, London

Fig.5. Admiral Lord Nelson, plaster cast
by Dominic Cardosi, 1830s or later, from bust by Franz Thaller and Matthias Ranson, 1801) (National Portrait Gallery).

In a remarkable account, the story was told of Italian plaster figure makers, from the mountains north of Lucca, journeying across Europe, to France, Germany and even to Russia (‘Wandering Italians’, Penny Magazine, 2 February 1833, no.54, p.42, accessible on Google Book Search). One or two men, experienced in casting figures in moulds, would collect a number of poor boys, of whom they would become the captains. They would cross the Apennines and the Alps, marching in a little corps of twelve or fifteen. Their moulds and a few tools were sent on ahead by wagon to Chambery, capital of the French department of Savoy, where they would make their first stay. They would find plaster and other simple materials for forming figures locally. On arriving at Chambery, the artist, or the captain of this company would set to work, despatching his boys through the city and the little towns and villages in the neighbourhood, to sell the figures which he had rapidly made. Once the market had been exhausted, the master would send his moulds and tools to Geneva, and follow on foot with his troop, each of whom would carry a few figures to sell at towns and villages on the road. From there, they would cross France, perhaps to Fontainebleau, and so on to Paris, Amiens and Calais and finally to England in search of ‘a golden harvest’. These itinerants sought not to settle in England but to return home with enough money to become owners of a house and a little land in the immediate neighbourhood of the villages where they were born.

It appears that such itinerant figure makers only began to come to England in large numbers following the fall of Napoleon. Evidence for migrant groups of plaster figure makers in Britain comes through the official ‘Returns of Aliens Passengers’, recording foreigners landing in Britain and through the 10 yearly census returns. Such figure makers, their occupation given as figure maker or as ‘figurista’ in the vernacular, would travel from France, usually in April, May or June, at the beginning of the summer season. One of the largest such groups arrived in the Port of London from Boulogne on 9 May 1853, with 14 men and boys led by Luigi and Pietro Sarti. In the 1841 census, another maker, Dominic Cardosi, age given as 35, was listed in Gray’s Inn Lane heading a crowded lodging house of 14 men and boys, ages from 40 to 15, all listed as figure makers.

Many of these men and boys will have been on lengthy fixed-term contracts, of as much as three years, under which they were paid a bonus on completion, leading to occasional abuse of the system whereby they were harassed towards the end of their contract to the point that some left in desperation, losing their wages and their bonus (see Lucio Sponza, Italian Immigrants in Nineteenth-Century Britain: Realities and Images, 1988, pp.76, 78). In 1858 a court case against a master, Luigi Caproni, was dismissed concerning the wages of Mansueto Mei, a plaster figure maker who had left him after 20 months of a 30-month contract to make images.

Let us examine the structure of the trade in more detail. Retailing of plaster figures took place through street trading in London and elsewhere and by travel to provincial towns to set up temporary shop, in both cases with a view to the household market for popular and contemporary figures. The more established makers would advertise in the press and elsewhere and might focus on the trade in casts and reproductions for museums, professionals and schools of art.

In 1843 Antonio Caproni of 97 Gray’s Inn Lane was accused of retailing an indecent cast of a naked female figure in the street. The sight of itinerant figure sellers inspired several Victorian paintings, including James Collinson's Italian Image Boys at a roadside Ale House, 1849, and William McTaggart's Following the Fine Arts, 1874, as well as popular printed images (see Journal of the History of Collections, vol.3, no.2, 1991, pp.283-4). But not all such street vendors were boys. Antonio Stoanbi, age 56, appears in the 1881 census as a hawker in plaster figures in Raffaello Sani’s household in Gray’s Inn Road.

In December 1850, Antonio and Luigi Caproni announced in the Newcastle Courant that Luigi Caproni had taken a show room in the Collingwood Inn in Newcastle to exhibit his splendid collection of statuettes, suitable for the artist or for ornament (the advertisement is headed, ‘Fine Arts! Fine Arts!!’). Eleven weeks later, Luigi announced his impending departure from Newcastle, naming some of his mythological and other figures, some ‘newly brought over from France’, also referring to busts by Chantrey and Baily. Another figure maker, Raffaello Sani set up temporarily in Portsea, advertising a fine collection of Italian sculpture and alabaster carvings in the Hampshire Telegraph in 1869.

Antonio and Louis Caproni would also promote their wares to a professional market, advertising as moulders and figure makers, offering figures for lights and gardens, figures painted and bronzed, masks taken from the living and the dead, adding ‘Casts taken from Gelatina’ (Blower's architect's, surveyor's, engineer's and builder's directory, 1860).

The links between Italian figure-making families who settled in England could be close, with marriages between families, Giovanni Franchi to Mary Sarti in 1831, Raffaello Sani to Emilia Caproni in 1861 and Enrico Cantoni to Florence Landi in 1888, and premises passing from one hand to another, so that we find No.1 Leather Lane occupied by Vincent Merchitti by 1837, Giovanni Graziani by 1850, who went into partnership with Domenico Brucciani, and by Daniele Landi in 1880, who remained in possession until 1902.

4. Collecting by museums and academies

Several historic cast collections survive more or less intact: that of Sir John Soane at Soane’s Museum put together in the late 18th and early 19th centuries (, the later 19th-century collection of plasters casts and electrotypes at the Victoria and Albert Museum (Cast Collection - Victoria and Albert Museum), the cast collections at the Royal Academy, begun after the Academy’s foundation in 1768 and continued into the early 20th century, the Edinburgh cast collection at Edinburgh College of Art, including part of the late 18th and early 19th-century collections of the former Trustees’ Academy and the Oxford University collection of classical casts, largely at the Ashmolean Museum, much of which was assembled from 1887.

Through the sculptor, Sir Richard Westmacott, and his agent Matthew Mazzoni, the British Museum supplied casts from the Elgin marbles to the court of Tuscany in 1818, and the following year to the courts of Rome, Naples and Prussia and the academy at Venice, in each case at the expense of the Treasury (Jenkins 1990 p.102). Orders from Plymouth, Liverpool, Bristol and elsewhere followed. Such was the British Museum's influence that the very word, formatore, crept into the English language as a result of its use by museum officials in the 1830s. It would seem that they preferred to use the Italian term to distinguish their craftsman, whether Italian or not, from the common plaster figure makers of the streets of London. By 1842, the Museum was offering a service to despatch casts to any part of the world (Synopsis of the contents of the British Museum, 1842, p.258, accessible through Google Book Search).

In the second half of the 19th century, London institutions and museums were actively building collections of  casts of architectural details and of works of art, as well as of fixed monumental work, both from Britain and abroad. The Architectural Museum in London, founded in 1851, was one such collection. The authorities at the Crystal Palace in south London, which opened in 1854, sought casts of great works of art across Europe and beyond. Casts from both institutions eventually came to the Victoria and Albert Museum, from the former in 1916 and from the latter, in smaller numbers, following the disastrous Crystal Palace fire in 1936. This burst of activity in collecting casts in London and elsewhere led the South Kensington Museum to draw up an 'International Convention of promoting universally Reproductions of Works of Art', which was signed in 1867 by fifteen European princes, to encourage the exchange of copies of 'the finest works of art which each country possesses' (see The Cast Courts - Victoria and Albert Museum).

The focus of the South Kensington Museum from the mid-1850s was on obtaining plaster casts and electrotypes of European mediaeval and renaissance works of art and monuments. It sent Domenico Brucciani to Santiago da Compostela in 1866 and Giovanni Franchi to Florence in 1867, as part of a much wider campaign. Some expeditions further afield were privately financed. The sculptor, Joseph Bonomi the Younger, cast reliefs for Robert Hay in the Valley of the Kings, Egypt, 1824-34, while Lorenzo Giuntini worked in Central America for Alfred Maudsley in 1883 and 1885 and in Persia for Herbert Weld in 1892. Many of the casts from these expeditions came to the British Museum.

Fig.6. Domenico Brucciani’s invoice for moulding and reproducing the tomb effigy of Robert, Duke of Normandy in Gloucester Cathedral, 1875
(National Portrait Gallery records, Duplicates of Accounts).

Domenico Brucciani’s success as the leading Victorian plaster figure maker came as a result of a competition to select a moulder in 1853 or 1854 for what became the South Kensington Museum. Four figure makers, Brucciani, a Mr Caproni, a Mr Sacchi and a Mr Ambrosi were each asked to make a mould of a certain relief. Brucciani’s appointment to the South Kensington Museum was followed by his selection as formatore to the British Museum in 1857, following William Pink’s death. These appointments probably gave him the resources and incentive to open his splendid Galleria delle Belle Arti in Russell St in 1864.

Other moulders who worked for the South Kensington Museum in the late 19th century included Enrico Cantoni, in England by 1881, and on a more occasional basis, Fernando Meacci and Lorenzo Giuntini. Cantoni produced various reproductions for the Museum, 1892-1912, mainly plaster casts, copies of which were supplied to other museums including those at Edinburgh and Dublin and he also undertook some bronze founding work. 

A generation later, during the First World War, Brucciani & Co Ltd ran into financial difficulties as the museum and school of art markets declined. A few years later, C. Smith & Sons withdrew from the schools market. In both cases, they approached the Board of Education to take over all or part of their businesses. In the event, the Victoria and Albert Museum did take on Brucciani’s cast making business from 1921, renaming it the Department for the Sale of Casts while retaining the same manager, Paul Ryan. But even this reduced business foundered in the 1950s at the nadir of the taste for plaster casts.

5. Sculptors’ moulders from 1880

Charles Stewart Parnell, by Mary Grant, 1892 - NPG 1087 - © National Portrait Gallery, London

Fig.7. Charles Stewart Parnell, plaster cast
attributed to Fernando Meacci of bust
by Mary Grant, 1892 (National Portrait Gallery).

In the second half of the 19th century the market for bronze statues for civic spaces and for statuettes for domestic interiors developed rapidly. Sculptors’ moulders became a specialist branch of plaster figure working, producing piece and waste moulds, gelatine moulds and plaster and wax casts, so necessary in the production of bronze sculpture. As one leading sculptor put it, ‘a moulder… is to the profession what a frame-maker is to the painter’ (E. Roscoe Mullins, A Primer of Sculpture, 1889, p.21). These figure makers left ‘Little Italy' and Clerkenwell to follow the sculptors, whether to Chelsea, Fulham or St John's Wood.

By the late 19th century, the sculptors’ moulder had become an established specialist role. However, the connection between sculptor and moulder was a very old one. In the period under review, it is possible to identify a variety of such connections: James De Ville worked for Joseph Nollekens, Matthew Mazzoni for Richard Westmacott, James Cockaine and Peter Sarti for Francis Chantrey, Fernando Meacci for Edward Onslow Ford and Alfred Gilbert, the Smiths for Eric Gill and Charles Wheeler and ‘Mac’ Mancini for Barbara Hepworth.

The best documented of such moulders is Fernando Meacci, who was one of three plaster workers, along with Ferdinando Lucchesi and T. Millon, recommended to students by the sculptor E. Roscoe Mullins in 1889. At this time Meacci was calling himself a piece moulder and figure maker on his invoice paper. He worked extensively for Edward Onslow Ford and Alfred Gilbert in the late 1880s and early 1890s, until his death in London in 1893, age 56. Other moulders of Italian origin returned to the land of their birth. When visiting Tuscany in the 1890s, Hubert Crackanthorpe wrote home of a hermit at a tiny mountain chapel, ‘a splendid old boy with a flowing white beard’, who turned out to have lived for twenty years in the Euston Road, working as as a sculptors’ moulder for Mullins, Thomas (of Capri), Onslow Ford and others (David Crackanthorpe, Hubert Crackanthorpe and English Realism in the 1890s, 1977, pp.98-9).

Not all moulders were Italian. One of the best-known businesses was that of Charles Smith & Sons, who worked for William Goscombe John and Eric Gill in the early 20th century and later for Sir Charles Wheeler, taking ‘perfect reproductions’ in plaster from a clay model. In his 1968 autobiography, Wheeler gives a graphic description of ‘Charlie Smith’, whom he described as ‘a big man, slow of gait and with a high-pitched voice’. He would arrive ‘carrying a large white enamelled bowl (for mixing Plaster of Paris), a roll of scrim (for reinforcing the plaster) and a collection of odd lengths of iron rods (for bracing the moulds)… He would have come to Chelsea, with all this paraphernalia, from Camden Town…. His overalls were stiff and heavy with plaster splashings and were never cleaned and his boots never scraped after a day’s paddling around in gypsum… But what a worker he was, and what skill he had acquired in a long life and in the service of many of the leading sculptors of the day.’

Both Barbara Hepworth and Maurice Lambert used ‘the renowned plaster caster’, Domenico (‘Mac’) Mancini. In 1958 when Hepworth wished to make casts of her earlier work, she turned to Mancini for the essential moulds, leaving him initially horrified by the complexity of casting her work but which he managed using a forty-piece mould.

Although the market today for new bronze sculpture has somewhat declined, and with it the need for such a network of independent sculptors’ moulders, the continuing importance of casting and working in plaster and similar materials can be seen from the work of artists as varied as Rachel Whiteread and Thomas Houseago.

More details of the individual plaster figure makers and sculptors' moulders discussed in this account can be found in the online directory, British bronze sculpture founders and plaster figure makers, 1800-1980.

Jacob Simon
[email protected]
21 February 2011


Where an individual maker or a particular cast collection is referred to in the above text, the information is sourced in the online directory, British bronze sculpture founders and plaster figure makers, 1800-1980. For abbreviations, see Resources and bibliography.