We’re back from a hiatus this week with Emily Knight, DPhil student in Art History, who came to talk to us about the morbidly fascinating world of posthumous portraiture, particularly death masks, from 1760-1832. Emily tells us about how death masks were made, why they were made, what they were used for, and why they prove to be so intriguing.
Of particular interest is the death mask of Sir Walter Scott, which was both commemorative and honourific, almost a secular relic. The one below is cast in bronze and is placed on a bronze cushion. Frustratingly for phrenologists, who wished to ascertain an individual’s personality through the lumps and bumps on his or her skull, Scott’s death mask bears a giant scar across his head from when his brain was taken out after his death.
Part of the interest in phrenology was to determine what made someone a genius or a criminal, so these casts could help (pseudo-)scientists to assess facial features to come to their conclusions.
In the 18th century death masks were almost always taken of men (rarely women) of note. In the 19th century death masks of women and children, as well as those of criminals, became more common.
The death mask of Thomas Lawrence was placed in a lidded box, which also contained an unfinished self-portrait, a lock of his hair, his chalk, pencil, and stubs. This was shown off to visitors, presumably by his descendants.
Other countries around Europe also made death masks, but these might have had different meanings. An example is Queen Louise of Prussia’s death mask, which was commissioned, whereas a request to take Princess Charlotte’s death mask was “appropriately” refused.
With the advent of photography, the production of death masks decreased. Postmortem photographs, in which the recently dead would be propped up and their picture taken as if they were alive, became quite popular, which reduced the need for death masks.
Hand casts and life masks were also taken, and items from people’s lives were carefully preserved and displayed in personal museums.
Thanks so much for joining us again! As usual, please feel free to get in touch with comments and questions.
Update: Upon listening to this podcast my father informed me that my uncle commissioned someone to take a cast of my grandfather’s hands when he died (he wanted to take a death mask but my grandmother refused). I had no idea! So, rest assured, the macabre is well and truly alive, even in the 21st century — E.D.