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
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).