Case Study: The craft of carved stone replicas

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.

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

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

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