Victorian Electrotypes: Old Treasures, New Technology

Selected Highlights

  • Leopard holding a shield

    Elkington & Co. (British, Birmingham, 1829–1963)

    Date: 19th century
    Accession Number: 83.18.4a, b

  • Cup with cover

    Elkington & Co. (British, Birmingham, 1829–1963)

    Date: 19th century
    Accession Number: 83.18.36a, b

  • Statuette

    Elkington & Co. (British, Birmingham, 1829–1963)

    Date: 19th century
    Accession Number: 83.18.45

  • Camel statuette

    Elkington & Co. (British, Birmingham, 1829–1963)

    Date: 19th century
    Accession Number: 83.18.54

Featured Media

Victorian Electrotypes: Old Treasures, New Technology

Program information

Electrometallurgy, one of many radical innovations of the nineteenth century, was used to create reproductions of historic silver with breathtaking fidelity. Explore how this technology brought science and art together.

Presented with the exhibition Victorian Electrotypes: Old Treasures, New Technology. Learn More: http://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2011/electrotypes

Introduction by exhibition curator Ellenor M. Alcorn, Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts, MMA

Art and Science: The Role of Electrometallurgy in the Nineteenth-Century Goldsmith's Workshop
Ubaldo Vitali, conservator and silversmith

The Perfect Marriage of Art and Industry: Elkington's and the South Kensington Museum's Electrotyping Program
Angus Patterson, curator of European Base Metals and Arms and Armour, Victoria and Albert Museum

The Elkington & Co.Visitors' Books at Philadelphia,1876
Alistair Grant, associate tutor in the Department of Art History at the University of Sussex and Research and Sculpture, Metalwork, Ceramics and Glass Departments of the Victoria and Albert Museum

Electroforming in the Contemporary Studio: A Conversation
Michael Glancy, independent artist, and senior critic, Jewelry and Metalsmithing Department, Rhode Island School of Design
Ellenor M. Alcorn, associate curator, Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts, MMA

Media image

The Electrotyping Process
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Victorian Electrotypes

Old Treasures, New Technology

November 22, 2011–April 22, 2012

For the first time in nearly a century, The Metropolitan Museum of Art is displaying a selection from its large collection of electrotypes, the metalwork reproductions that were among the first European decorative arts purchased by the Museum in the 1870s and 1880s. These highly sculptural and often monumental pieces were intended to represent to the American public the most ambitious examples of Mannerist and Baroque goldsmiths' work and to serve as inspiration for artists and manufacturers. They were made by electroforming, a technology first developed in the 1840s that produced an extremely precise copy of an original by running an electrical charge through a solution to deposit metal into a mold.

The exhibition includes approximately 110 works. The earliest purchases were made with the advice of the South Kensington Museum (now the Victoria and Albert Museum), whose director Henry Cole was a prime mover in an international project designed to distribute casts and copies "for the promotion of art" to museums across the world.

The "Convention for the International Exchange of Reproductions of Works of Art" was signed in 1867 by fifteen of Europe's reigning heads and introduced an era of international cooperation and intellectual openness, encouraging public access to royal treasuries that had traditionally been inaccessible. The largest group of electrotypes in the exhibition comprises copies of the so-called "Russian Treasures," the rich holdings of silver and gold housed in the Kremlin, the Hermitage, and Russian monasteries. The exhibition also includes electrotypes held by the Arms and Armor, Medieval, and Greek and Roman Departments of the Metropolitan Museum.

To fabricate the electrotypes, specialist mold makers from the Elkington Manufactory and Franchi and Sons traveled to sites across Europe. They returned to England with piece-molds made of gutta percha (a malleable latex derived from a Malaysian tree). The molds were used to produce copper patterns that would serve as the master model from which multiple copies could be made. Base-metal electrotypes could be patinated, silver plated, or gilt to more closely resemble the original work.

Also on view is Tiffany and Company's magnificent Bryant Vase, the first piece of American silver to enter the collection. Tiffany later produced several electrotyped copies of the vase, and those copper molds, along with an animated video, are on view in the installation to explain the electroforming process.

The electrotypes created a strong impression in the press when they were first exhibited in the Museum's galleries. The painting by American artist Frank Waller, Interior View of the Metropolitan Museum of Art when in Fourteenth Street, shows a gallery in 1879 with a sampling of the earliest acquisitions in situ. Some critics remarked that they were worthy of study while others complained that they represented only "barbaric luxury." By the early years of the twentieth century, as the Museum began to acquire original works of art of great quality, the electrotypes, like the Museum's plaster casts, were relegated to storage. Many museums deaccessioned their electrotypes, and the Metropolitan Museum is the only American museum today with an extensive collection that was acquired in the nineteenth century.

Above: Cup, 19th century. Elkington and Co. (Birmingham, in business ca. 1836-1963). English (after a German original). Electroformed copper, gilt; 33 x 34 x 14 in. (83.8 x 86.4 x 35.6 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Henry G. Marquand, 1883 (83.18.213a, b)