The labour intensive nature of pointing combined with the increased demand for sculpture from the middle of the 19th century onwards inspired the search for a mechanical alternative to pointing. When Benjamin Cheverton voiced the opinion to the Royal Institute of British Architects that ‘Sculpture then, in its technical aspect, is a mechanical art, and mechanical sculpture is the perfection of it’, he was voicing a sentiment which was quite widely believed in Victorian England and his invention was but one in a long line of mechanical encroachments upon the sculptor’s art. Benjamin Cheverton’s ‘Sculpturing Machine’ was not a new idea when it was patented in 1844. The conviction that it might be possible to reproduce sculpture mechanically in the round was one which had occupied James Watt’s attention in the last years of his life c.1815, when he was immortalised in a bust made by Francis Chantrey. Watt produced some startling results by ingeniously adapting the principles of a medallion turning lathe, but he died before he was able to realise his ambition of making his own reproduction of Chantrey’s bust of him. Cheverton’s machine however differs markedly from previous attempts to realise the construction of a carving machine in that it was capable of making both enlargements and reductions from an original. The tracing point and the cutting tool are mounted on a carriage which slides on a bar pivoted on a ball joint. Their interconnection allows them to move together longitudinally with respect to the bar and to carve recesses which would otherwise be inaccessible. The original sculpture is mounted upon vertical spindles so that it may be rotated by hand when required. Cheverton designed his machine initially for carving marble, but found that it produced the most satisfactory results carving in ivory, a medium which he preferred for its opacity.
Throughout the second half of the 19th century carving machines continued to be developed and refined. The Morning Post of August 3 1903 congratulated the novelist Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and sculptor W. G. Jones for having the entrepreneurial insight in ‘bringing before the country an invention which will do all of the work done by the pointer and in a twentieth of the time’. Conan Doyle and Jones had secured exclusive rights to the invention of a Signor August Bontempi, of Naples, and the only working model of his machine then in existence. The machine was demonstrated in a disused factory in Battersea before a jury which included the sculptor Sir Thomas Brock RA and Mr Brindley of the firm of Farmer and Brindley. Brock evidently ‘declared the utmost astonishment’ at the speed of the machine and his sentiments were echoed by Brindley. The Morning Post heralded the machine as ‘Remarkable’ and predicted that ‘while the machine will not do away with the necessity for the artist’s finishing touches in the case of delicate work, it promises entirely to do away with the long and costly process of pointing’.
The importance of not doing away with the artist was something which Cheverton was at great pains to impress upon the members of the RIBA in 1837. ‘It is the artist who must take the first step. It must be his hand to catch and embody the ideal creations of his imagination, or to light up with a refined intellectual, or impassioned expression of the otherwise literalitie of mere lineament and form. The artist accordingly avails himself of all the mechanical helps he can find – if therefore the machinist brings to his aid a more efficient instrument, so perfect indeed as to enable him to take a facsimilie of his original model, he assists him to accomplish that which by present imperfect he cannot hope although he desires to effect’.
Despite Cheverton’s rhetoric, the days of marble and certainly of ivory as popular media for contemporary sculpture were numbered, and by the end of the 19th century a revival of bronze casting had begun which brought with it a new series of technological developments in the reproduction of art.
LOST WAX BRONZE CASTING
Lost was bronze casting by the direct method requires that the object to be cast is modelled in terracotta or plaster and covered with a layer of wax onto which the finer details of the sculpture are worked. Long strips of solid wax are stuck at strategic points on the surface like spines on a porcupine. This wax model with its various extensions is then placed in a mould and a ‘scrim investment’ (a mixture of clay and plaster) is poured over it, leaving the ends of the wax extensions outside the mould. When the investment has hardened, it is heated and the wax is poured out leaving a cavity the same shape as the now melted sculpture. Into this space then is poured molten bronze. The air in the cavity escapes through the spaces left by the wax extensions and is replaced by bronze which cools and hardens. The scrim investment is then chipped away leaving a hollow bronze copy of the destroyed wax original. Finally the bronze extensions are cut away and the finer details of the bronze’s surface are worked over and the patination applied.
From the above method, further moulds can be made, but this is time consuming and expensive. Instead a process by which the original wax, clay or plaster sculpture is reproduced in a harder, more permanent form, such as plaster was conceived. This more durable version could not only lend itself to being cast again, but also retained the advantage that if any disasters occurred in the casting from this secondary model, the original remained intact and further attempts could be made.