Jeremy Bentham’s Death Mask (and Auto-Icon)

Following my recent post on the Laurence Hutton Collection of Death Masks, here is the Jeremy Bentham mask, with an extract on Bentham from Hutton’s own account of the collection in Portraits in Plaster from the Collection of Laurence Hutton. This extract further illuminates the already well-known story of how Bentham bequeathed his remains for medical research on the condition that his body should later be preserved and allowed to “attend” meetings and events at University College, London (see photograph and accompanying notes below).

Parton quoted Burr as saying of Jeremy Bentham, ” It is impossible to conceive a physiognomy more strongly marked with ingenuousness and philanthropy.” John Stuart Mill said of him that ” he was a boy till the last.” And at the age of eighty-two he himself wrote to an old friend: “I am alive, though turned of eighty; still in good health and spirits ; codifying like a dragon.” ” Candor in the countenance, mildness in the looks, serenity upon the brow, calmness in the language, coolness in the movements, imperturbability united with the keenest feeling :”  such, according to Brissot de Warville, were the characteristics of Bentham. 

Since St. Denis of France used to walk about with his head under his arm, or used to sit about with his head in his lap, in the third century of our Christian era, no post-mortem performance is more grotesque than that of Jeremy Bentham, who left his body by will to Dr. South-wood Smith. The legatee was instructed to dissect it, and to deliver lectures upon it to his medical students and to the public generally. After these anatomical demonstrations a skeleton was to be made, and was made, of the bones. Dr. Smith “endeavored to preserve the head untouched” the words are his own “merely drawing away the fluids by placing it under an air-pump over sulphuric acid. By this means the head was rendered as hard as the skulls of the New-Zealanders, but all expression, of course, was gone. Seeing this would not do for exhibition, I had a mould made in wax by a distinguished French artist, taken from David’s bust, Pickersgill’s picture, and my own ring. The artist succeeded in producing one of the most admirable likenesses ever seen. I then had the skeleton stuffed out to fit Bentham’s own clothes, and this was likewise fitted to the trunk. The figure was placed seated on the chair in which he usually sat, one hand holding the walking-stick which was his constant companion when he went out, called by him ‘ Dapple.’ The whole was enclosed in a mahogany case with glass doors.” Bentham was wont to amuse himself in his boyish old age with the vision of his presiding, as it were, in proper person at meetings of his disciples, and he even used to anticipate his being wheeled to the top of the table on festive occasions! 

His figure as here described is still to be seen in the rooms of University College, Gower Street, London. It is curious that Dr. Smith did not go to the mask for a representation of Bentham’s actual face. That such a mask was made, George Combe testified in the columns of the London Phrenological Journal a few years after Bentham’s death. He said that it was in his own possession, and showed that ” the knowing organ was large and the reflective organs only full.” The mask, he said, was very like the portrait of Bentham reproduced in Tait’s edition of Bentham’s works. But he does not say whether it was a death-mask or the life-mask known to have been made by Turnerelli, an Italian sculptor living in London, in the early part of this century, and when Bentham was not more than fifty years of age. He was eighty-five when he died. This plaster mask of Bentham has been compared carefully with the wax effigy in University College. The mouth, the cranial arch, the entire upper part of the face, and the general shape of the head are very like, although in the wax mask the chin is shorter and rounder, and the eyes, of course, are open. 

Until recently, the ‘auto-icon’ of the eccentric English philosopher – comprising Bentham’s skeleton and wax head – sat in a wooden box in the corner of the Wilkins Building, dressed in 18th century clothing and holding Bentham’s favourite walking stick known as ‘Dapple’. Bentham is UCL’s most popular museum exhibit, attracting visitors from all over the world. In his new showcase in the public atrium of the Student Centre, which this month marks its one-year anniversary, his auto-icon will be more visible to the public.
Christina McGregor, Head of Collections Management at UCL Culture, said: “Bentham’s new home provides greatly enhanced preservation conditions, better visitor access and a place at the centre of the student community.“His auto-icon has been in a stable, albeit fragile, condition. By moving the auto-icon to a new sealed museum-grade case with filters to protect from ultraviolet light, dust, pollutants and bugs, we can continue to preserve the icon for future generations of UCL staff, students and alumni.”
Bentham, who died in 1832, insisted that his body be preserved after his death as an ‘auto-icon’, to advance medical science, believing that individuals should make themselves as useful as possible, both in life and death.The internationally celebrated social reformer, Bentham, also strongly believed that education should be made more widely available. He is best known for developing the doctrine of utilitarianism, which aimed to promote ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number’.

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