The Hutton Death Mask of William Makepeace Thackeray

Following my recent post on the Laurence Hutton Collection of Death Masks, here is Thackeray, with an extract from Hutton’s own account of the collection in Portraits in Plaster from the Collection of Laurence Hutton.

Thackeray, like most Anglo-Indian infants, was sent, when he was about five years of age, to the mother-country for mental and physical nourishment. An aunt, with whom he lived, discovered the child one morning parading about in his uncle’s hat, which exactly fitted him. Fearing some abnormal and dangerous development of the brain, she carried him at once to a famous physician of the day, who is reported to have said, ” Don’t be afraid, madam ; he has a large head, but there’s a good deal in it !” How much was in it subsequent events have certainly proved. His brain, when he died, fifty-three years later, weighed fifty-eight and a half ounces. In 1849 or 1850, Charlotte Bronte wrote of Thackeray : ” To me the broad brow seems to express intellect. Certain lines about the nose and cheek betray the satirist and cynic ; the mouth indicates a childlike simplicity perhaps even a degree of irresoluteness in consistency weakness in short, but a weakness not unamiable.” And Motley, writing to his wife in 1858, said: “I believe you have never seen Thackeray ; he has the appearance of a colossal infant, smooth, white, shining ringlety hair, flaxen, alas ! with advancing years ; a roundish face, with a little dab of a nose, upon which it is a perpetual wonder how he keeps his spectacles.” This broken nose was always a source of amusement to Thackeray himself; he caricatured it in his drawings, he frequently alluded to it in his speech and in his letters, and he was fond of repeating Douglas Jerrold’s remark to him when he was to stand as godfather to a friend’s son ” Lord, Thackeray, I hope you won’t present the child with your own mug!” 

It is not pleasant to look upon the face of Thackeray the face of which we love to think so pleasantly as distorted by death. He was found dead in his bed on the morning of December 24, 1863 : ” So young a man,” as Dickens wrote, ” that the mother who blessed him in his first sleep blessed him in his last. The final words he corrected in print,” continued Dickens, “were ‘And my heart throbbed with an exquisite bliss.’ God grant that on that Christmas eve when he laid his head back on his pillow, and threw up his arms as he had been wont to do when very weary, some consciousness of duty done, and Christian hope throughout life humbly cherished, may have caused his heart so to throb when he passed away to his Eedeemer’s rest !” 

” And, lo,” said Thackeray himself once, of the most beautiful character in all fiction, his own Thomas Newcome “And, lo, he whose heart was as that of a little child had answered to his name, and stood in the presence of The Master !” “We think of Thackeray,” wrote Dr. John Brown, of Edinburgh, ” as of our Chalmers, found dead in like manner : the same childlike, unspoiled, open face, the same gentle mouth, the same spaciousness and softness of nature, the same look of power. What a thing to think of his lying there alone in the dark, in the midst of his own mighty London ; his mother and his daughters asleep, and, it may be, dreaming of his goodness. Long years of sorrow, labor, and pain had killed him before his time. It was found after death how little life he had to live. He looked always fresh with that abounding silver hair, and his loving, almost infantile face; but he was worn to a shadow, and his hands wasted as if by eighty y ears.” 

The cast of Thackeray’s face was made by Brucciani on that sad Christmas morning, at the request of Dr., now Sir, Henry Thompson ; and a cast of his right hand was made at the same time that honest, faithful, beautiful, wasted right hand, which “never writ a flattery, Nor signed the page that registered a lie.”

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