‘Ghost Objects’ – 19th century paper mould techniques and the portability of antiquities

Blog Post – Anna McSweeney July 2016

Among the members of the Bilderfahrzeuge group, we have been thinking recently about  ‘immutable mobiles’ and the object-oriented theories of Bruno Latour in relation to our work on image vehicles, the movement of images. In his essay ‘Visualisation and Cognition’, Latour casts inscriptions as the explanatory principle of modern scientific culture. He uses the term ‘immutable mobiles’ to describe objects which are characterized by the properties of mobility, immutability, presentability, readibility and combinability with each other. He claims that the history of these objects is the history of scholarship in visualisation and cognition.

It seemed to me that paper moulds are a good example of an immutable mobile. Using layers of wet paper to make a negative impression of a building or object, from which a positive could be cast in plaster, paper moulds were used by archaeologists and antiquarians in the mid-nineteenth century to copy the façades of monuments that were far away, at Angkor Wat in Cambodia, Palenque in Mexico or the Alhambra in Spain, for example. Described as ‘facsimiles’ by the inventor of the technique, Lottin de Laval (1810-1903), paper moulds allowed explorers to transport a version of a building or sculpture with all its details back to the museum in the age before both digital reproduction and cheap and reliable photography. Of course, the practice of piece moulding in plaster had already been around for a long time, allowing artists to do the same thing with the buildings of Italy and France for example. But paper moulds offered something different. As a cheap and extremely light method of reproduction, they allowed the explorer to travel further, into previously uncopied territories, into the Mexican and Cambodian jungles for example, where the huge weight and fragile nature of plaster would have proved prohibitive.

In the 1840s photography was still an unreliable and cumbersome technique for long journeys to faraway archaeological sites. Sketching and copying on paper was also viewed with suspicion, considered susceptible to the subjectivities of the individual eye and its tendency to associate what it sees with the known world. This was particularly the case when the drawings were of unfamiliar ornamentation, such as the carvings of the Mayan monuments.

The French explorer Lottin de Laval came up with a solution, inventing a technique of paper moulding that responded to the adventurous archaeologist’s problems.  The paper squeeze technique had long been used to copy epigraphy in the Near East, but the thin, small paper squeeze was an end in itself, used to decipher scripts back home in the museum or university. What Lottin was looking for was a more robust way to copy the more sculptural motifs on architectural facades that could then be used for reproduction.  In 1857 he published a small manual, Manuel Complet de Lottinoplastique, for ‘archaeologists, painters, sculptors, engravers, architects, travellers, clergymen, tourists, collectors, cabinetmakers, manufacturers of bronze objects and enthusiasts’. Using paper, gelatine, oil (sesame oil or mutton fat) and fire he made paper moulds that were impermeable and robust – precise, solid, light and quick to make.

Lottin was obsessed with travelling light and with the simplification of the archaeologist’s load. He boasted: “I could already bring back, from the ends of the world, in a crate from my cantines, an immense series of monuments, which could then be reproduced by me in Paris in plaster, in Roman concrete and finally in zinc and bronze.” (Lottin de Laval, 1857)


Pierre Victorien Lottin {aka Lottin de Laval}.


I became interested in the paper mould technique through my work on the Alhambra Palace, an Islamic building that was extensively copied and replicated in the nineteenth century. Both Owen Jones and Carl von Diebitsch used the paper mould technique to copy the façades of the palace in Granada, Spain, from which they cast versions in plaster and iron. In his description of his version of the “Alhambra Court” that he made for the Crystal Palace exhibition in Sydenham (1854), Jones wrote:

‘The authorities which have served in this reproduction of a portion of the “Alhambra” are, the plates of my published work, and a collection of plaster casts and impressions on unsized paper (which were taken by me in the Spring of 1837) of every ornament of importance throughout the palace of the “Alhambra,” the low relief of the ornaments rendering them peculiarly susceptible of this process. From these casts and paper impressions, full-sized drawings have been made with great fidelity, by my pupils Albert Warren and Charles Aubert, and the ornaments carved, moulded, cast, and fixed by Mr. Henry A. Smith and his two sons, assisted by a very intelligent body of English workmen’ [sic].

Meanwhile in Prussia, the Kaiser recognised the value of Diebitsch’s paper moulds and wanted to buy them, but Diebitsch refused to sell – using them instead to recreate features for a kind of ‘do-it-yourself’ Alhambra decor for the private home.


Owen Jones’s scaled version of the Alhambra ‘Lion’s Court’ at the Sydenham Crystal Palace. Albumen print by Philip Henry Delamotte (1821 – 89), The Alhambra Court: Crystal Palace, c. 1859. V&a Museum, London.


Earlier this year, I gave a talk on the paper mould technique to staff at Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts in London.  In June 2016 a few of us from the Bilderfahrzeuge Project and from CSM paid a visit to see some original paper moulds that are held at the storehouse of the British Museum in Blythe House. These were the collection of nearly 300 paper moulds that were made by the great explorer of the Mayan monuments of Central America, Alfred Maudslay in the mid-nineteenth century, generously shown to us by Kate Jarvis of the Americas department at the BM. The CSM colleagues are putting on an exhibition at the Lethaby gallery on Print next year, and were interested in the possibilities of recreating this versatile and cheap technique as well as the potential for exploring the moulds using digital technology.

The moulds are stored in cases and shelves in a large room on the top floor of the building, alongside many of the plaster casts that were made from them. It was immediately obvious how unwieldy, fragile and heavy the plaster casts were compared with the light and flexible paper moulds. Some of those moulds that were kept on open shelves were as large as a person and had a real sculptural quality to them. They looked and felt a little like egg carton, could be lifted with one hand, and still smelt of the linseed oil that they had been painted with after firing.


The larger moulds are kept on open shelves. British Museum (Blythe House).


Anne Maudslay, the antiquarian’s wife, described in her diaries how the moulds made it back from Central America to London:

‘The paper moulds, after being well dried in the sun, were given a good dressing with boiled linseed oil, and then made up into packages covered first with ‘scrims’ a sort of loosely woven canvas, and then with an outer coat of shiny waterproof cloth. Each package was then fixed in a crate made of the long light stems of a species of Hibiscus, which we had previously cut and dried. They were unwieldy burdens, but as none of them weighted more than sixty pounds, we had no great difficulty in engaging mozos who carried them on their backs in safety to the port.’

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Smaller paper moulds of Palenque, made by Maudslay. British Museum (BLYTHE HOUSE).


The moulds are not pretty things, and it’s not even immediately clear what they are. It’s easy to see why they have been stored away for over a century and frankly a miracle that they have been kept and not discarded after so many years. But their value becomes obvious when we think about their role in the history of portable antiquities, in the movement of knowledge across time and space, and as a record of how a thing that was very far away looked at a particular moment in time.

Cast taken from a paper mould by Maudslay, British Museum.

Cast taken from a paper mould by maudslay, british Museum (BLYTHE HOUSE).


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Examining plaster casts that had been taken from paper moulds made by Maudslay at Palenque. British Museum (Blythe House).


The contemporary Mexican artist Mariana Castillo Deball worked on Maudslay’s paper moulds for an exhibition at the Chisenhale Gallery in 2013. She learnt the technique, creating casts of trees and tree roots that she refers to as ‘memory skins’. Referencing the work of the anthropologist Alfred Gell, she is interested in the notion of the paper mould as a ‘ghost object….quiet witnesses of an attempt to capture and absorb the object of observation.’ At an installation entitled Parergon at the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin in 2014 she played with these ideas of copies and originals, versions and translations as well as object biographies – one of the key pieces is a curtain onto which the outline of the Mshatta Facade at the Museum of Islamic Art Berlin is traced, a foundational piece in the MIK collection, that was gifted to the German Kaiser by the Ottoman ruler in 1903.

The availability of reliable and cheap photographic methods by the later nineteenth century, as well as the falling popularity of the plaster cast model in the early twentieth century, meant that the demand for replicas of monuments from faraway places was replaced by one for accurate and detailed photographs, and even for the original buildings when geo-politics allowed for it (in the case of Mshatta facade for example). (Although paper squeezes, those thin sheets used to take prints of inscriptions, continued to be used in archaeological sites.)

Mapping and understanding the world and bringing it in its ‘complete’ state from faraway to the ‘civilised’ domain was the project of the nineteenth century. The cheap, durable and ubiquitous nature of paper meant that it became a popular technique for copying fixed objects that were far away. It was with these paper moulds, these light and transportable Bilderfahrzeuge, that endless reproductions of these buildings could be cast in plaster, or even in rubber, fibreglass, or iron. Now as Mariana Castillo Deball among other artists have explored, they are ghost objects, existing largely in their positive plaster cast forms rather than the negative paper mould. But the legacy of Maudslay’s paper moulds in the storehouses of the BM is invaluable, as one of the keys to that grand European project of bringing the world back home.



Mariana Castillo Deball ‘What we caught we threw away what we didn’t catch we kept’, Chisenhale Gallery, London (24 May – 14 July 2013). 

Alfred Gell, 1996: ‘Vogel’s Net: Traps as Artworks and Artworks as Traps’ in Journal of Material Culture (March 1996) vol. 1 no. 1, 15-38.

Bruno Latour, 1986: ‘Visualisation and Cognition: Drawing Things Together’ in H. Kuklick (editor) Knowledge and Society Studies in the Sociology of Culture Past and Present, Jai Press vol. 6, 1-40.

Irina Podgorny, 2008: ‘Portable antiquities transportation, ruins, and communications in nineteenth-century archeology’ in Historia, Ciencias, Saude: 3, 577-595.

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