Be­hind the mask

From Mary, Queen of Scots to J. M. W. Turner, the death mask gives us ac­cess to a long-lost char­ac­ter. Ju­lian Lit­ten looks death in the face

Country Life Every Week - - In The Driving Seat -

ASCULPTURE of a face in death is some­thing not of this world—cold, hard and harsh—and yet all have one thing com­mon: they are the true and pos­i­tive coun­ter­feit of life. This form of por­trai­ture has been used as an aide for a sculp­tor cre­at­ing a fu­ner­ary or tomb ef­figy, as a por­trait bust, to show to the world the fea­tures of an ex­e­cuted crim­i­nal, as an aide-mem­oire of a fa­mous per­son or merely as a keep­sake for the spouse of the de­ceased.

Some, such as those of Mary, Queen of Scots and of John Keats, are beau­ti­ful, but oth­ers, such as J. M. W. Turner and Richard Brins­ley Sheri­dan, are hideously dis­torted, the re­sult of their hav­ing had their cast taken sans den­tures.

In all prob­a­bil­ity, the death mask has its ori­gin in late-me­dieval Italy or France. One of the ear­li­est known such in­stances in Eng­land was that taken of Ed­ward III (d.1377) for the sake of his fu­neral ef­figy, but the finest of the royal death masks is that of Henry VII (d.1509), of­ten as­cribed to the Ital­ian artist Pi­etro Tor­ri­giano, who used in­suf­fi­cient goose-grease in the tak­ing, which ex­plains the raised and twisted eye­brows.

Both of these ef­fi­gies are at West­min­ster Abbey, as is that of Ed­mund, 2nd Duke of Buck­ing­ham (d.1735), who died in Rome and, be­fore his body was coffined for repa­tri­a­tion, a mask was made of his face and a cast taken of his hands, care­ful ex­am­i­na­tion of which shows that he was in the habit of bit­ing his nails. Un­for­tu­nately, His Grace had been dead some days be­fore the death mask was cre­ated; there is a slight droop in the face to­wards the left, with the head at an an­gle to the right of the neck and the left eye pro­trud­ing more than the right. Doubt­less, his head had been in­clined to­wards the left af­ter lay­ing-out and the mod­eller had to twist his sub­ject to the right to ef­fect the cast—which only goes to show how re­veal­ing these masks can be.

Rys­brack re­lied on a death mask of Isaac New­ton (d.1727) for his statue to the great man in West­min­ster Abbey and Count Gle­ichen had ac­cess to that of his fa­ther-in-law, Sir Ge­orge Sey­mour (d.1870), when he sculpted his fu­neral ef­figy for St James’s church at Ar­row, War­wick­shire.

The Har­vey Vault in north Es­sex con­tains one of the most evoca­tive death masks in the county, form­ing part of the an­thro­poid lead shell con­tain­ing the re­mains of El­iz­a­beth Har­vey. It was the tra­di­tion of the Har­veys dur­ing the 17th cen­tury to have death masks taken of fam­ily mem­bers and there are 12 other coffins in the vault, in­cor­po­rat­ing iden­ti­fi­able fea­tures, but that of El­iz­a­beth re­mains the finest.

Death casts of crim­i­nals’ heads greatly out­num­ber the more sub­lime death mask as some ma­jor pris­ons in the early 19th cen­tury were in the cus­tom of hav­ing their ex­e­cuted felons im­mor­talised, prob­a­bly as warn­ing to oth­ers, al­though there is no ev­i­dence that they were ever dis­played for public view­ing. Those at Nor­wich Gaol were all cast by Gio­vanni Bianchi, an Ital­ian plas­ter-worker res­i­dent in the town, and those at New­gate were made by Bartholomew Casci. Ital­ians ob­vi­ously had a flavour for these things.

The ma­jor­ity of 19th-cen­tury death masks were made to create the fi­nal like­nesses of well-known politi­cians, au­thors, po­ets and ac­tors: Charles James Fox, Wil­liam Pitt the Younger, Thomas Paine, Richard Brins­ley Sheri­dan, Sir Wal­ter Scott, Wil­liam Thack­eray, Sa­muel Co­leridge, Ed­mund Keane and Henry Irv­ing be­ing just the tip of a ti­tanic ice­berg of the craft.

Rel­a­tively few death masks are made to­day, al­though Nick Reynolds is the most well-known cur­rent artist of that medium (www.red­house­o­rig­i­nals.com; 01423 884400). If you aren’t claus­tro­pho­bic, you might like to ask Ni­cholas Dim­bleby to oblige—his life casts are both haunt­ing and serene, which, af­ter all, is what these items were in­tended to be (07710 506999; www.nicholas­dim­bleby.co.uk).

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