To study the history of attitudes to ancient art would be to study the history of European culture as a whole’

This statement, from Francis Haskell and Nicholas Penny’s seminal work Taste and the Antique: the Lure of Classical Sculpture, 1500–1900 will serve as the basic premise for this paper.

From the Renaissance to the nineteenth century, ancient sculpture in particular played a role in the formation of European culture. A knowledge and understanding of classical sculpture was perceived as being of paramount importance to education, and fundamental to all claims of sophistication. A limited number of sculptures were accorded canonical status, and ‘set the standards by which art of all kinds was to be evaluated for more than three hundred years’. Canonical status led to demand, which eventually led to reproduction, and a system in which sculptural copies flourished.

In Ireland, from the era of the Grand Tour until at least the late 1960s, Ireland’s relationship with ancient Greece and Rome took on a physical form in the shape of plaster casts and other reproductions of ancient sculptures. This talk will investigate the lives of these copy collections in Ireland, from their beginnings as private collector’s objects, to their role as ‘arbiters of taste’, and from their position as essential parts of art education to their ultimate decline. The primary aim will be to contextualise the history of Irish casts and to place them into a broader European framework.

It will focus on larger, institutional collections, such as the National Museum of Ireland, the Crawford Gallery, the National College of Art and Design, and the National Gallery of Ireland. Through an examination of a number of these collections, it appears that the collecting of sculptural copies in Ireland fit in well with wider cultural European trends in the reception of the ancient world.

Finally, the paper will briefly assess the status of some of the remaining copy collections in Ireland today, and attempt to highlight future work that will be necessary in order to maintain them.