The Hutton Death Mask of Jonathan Swift

Following my recent post on the Laurence Hutton Collection of Death Masks, here is Jonathan Swift, with an extract from Hutton’s own account of the collection in Portraits in Plaster from the Collection of Laurence Hutton. The extract is of great interest, comparing and contrasting Sir William Wilde’s account of Swift’s last years with Walter Scott’s account. 

Dr. Wilde, [Oscar Wilde’s father] afterwards Sir William Wilde, published in Dublin, in 1849, a volume entitled The Closing Years of Dean Swift’s Life, a very interesting book now long out of print. It is an elaborate defence of Swift’s sanity, and it contains a full account of the plaster mask taken from the Dean’s face “after the post-mortem examination.” From this, he said, “a bust was made and placed in the museum of the University, which, notwithstanding its possessing much of the cadaverous appearance, is, we are strongly inclined to believe, the best likeness of Swift during, at least, the last few years of his life now in existence.” Speaking of this mask, Sir Walter Scott wrote : ” The expression of countenance is most unequivocally maniacal, and one side of the mouth (the left) horribly contorted downwards, as if convulsed by pain.” Dr. Wilde, on the other hand, said: ” The expression is remarkably placid ; but there is an evident drag in the left side of the mouth, exhibiting a paralysis of the facial muscles of the right side, which, we have reason to believe, existed for some years before his death.” 

Dr. Wilde compared this cast of Swift’s face, taken immediately after death, with the cast and drawings of his skull made in 1835, ninety years later, when the bodies of Swift and Stella were exhumed, and their craniums examined by the phrenologists belonging to the British Association; and by careful analysis of both, he was able to satisfy himself that Swift was not ” a driveller and a show ” when he died, nor a madman while he lived. He gave, upon the sixty-second page of his book, a drawing of this mask in profile, and the face is certainly identical with the face in my collection. It resembles very strongly the accepted portraits of Swift, particularly the two in which he was drawn without his wig. The more familiar of these is a profile in crayon, by Barber, taken when the Dean was about sixty years of age and eighteen years before his death which has been frequently engraved for the several editions of Lord Orrery’s Remarks on the Life and Writings of Jonathan Swift, first published in 1751. The original cast was made in two parts, according to Dr. “Wilde, and the difference in surface between the rough hinder part not existing in my copy and the smooth polished anterior portion, as here seen, shows at once that the back of the head was added at a later date. Two lines of writing, greatly defaced, found upon the cast attest this to be ” Dean Swift taken off his …. the night of his burial, and the …. one side larger than the other in nature.” In a foot-note to the second edition of his work, Dr. Wilde said : “The original mask remained in the museum T.C.D. [Trinity College, Dublin] till within a few years ago [1849], when it was accidentally destroyed.” The history of this replica for replica it certainly is before it came into my hands I have never been able to trace. It found its way into the shop of a dealer in curiosities, who knew nothing of its pedigree, not even whose face it was ; and from him I bought it for a few shillings. It is one of the most interesting of the collection, and perhaps the most valuable, because the most rare. It is hardly the Swift of our imagination, the man whom Stella worshipped and Vanessa adored ; and, Dr. Wilde to the contrary, notwithstanding, one cannot help feeling while looking at it that Swift’s own sad prophecy to Dr. Young was fulfilled” I shall be like that lofty elm whose head has been blasted ; I shall die first at the top.”

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