The Laurence Hutton Collection of Death Masks

Dora Wheeler Keith, Laurence Hutton, 1894, Princeton University Art Museum.

Laurence Hutton (1843 – 1904) was an American essayist, journalist and lecturer. In his spare time he put together a fascinating collection of death masks that he kept in his house on West 34th Street in New York. We know from Epoch magazine that after his death Mrs Hutton, who “abhorred the ghastly images”, “got rid of them with all possible speed”. Luckily, the masks finally found their way to Princeton where Hutton had taught English Lit. The following article about the collection was published in the New York magazine, The Collector (Vol. V., No. 3, 1 December, 1893.) I have reproduced this article in full here and included photos from the Princeton archive. At the end of the post you will find an embedded link to Hutton’s own book, Portraits in Plaster from the Collection of Laurence Hutton (1894), in which he explains, very amusingly, how the collection took shape and the happy and unhappy accidents that befell him in the course of its formation.

The collection of death masks formed by Mr Laurence Hutton of this city has been widely advertised in a general way but it remained for The Sun to provide a more detailed account of this curious and highly interesting accumulation of personal memorials. According to the writer of this article Mr Hutton became a collector of death masks by mere chance and pursued his work in the face of great difficulties. He had accidentally come upon three or four masks in a curiosity shop and he went to the different continental museums and instituted inquiries in many different directions only to discover that such a thing as a collection of death masks was practically not in existence. At the Hohenzollern Museum in Berlin however he found four masks, at the British Museum in London three, and three more in London at the National Portrait Gallery. One or two of the other European museums had a stray mask stowed away. The masks he found in the museums he succeeded in obtaining permission to have copied and with their aid his collection took its start. At the different phrenological museums were plenty of death masks but all were of human monstrosities – giants, dwarfs, abnormal developments and abnormal features of no use to him. The heads of statesmen, thinkers and writers were not among the number.

When museums and public institutions were exhausted the rest of the search had to be carried on in curiosity shops and the rooms of sculptors and plasterers. Of the hundreds of shops that he visited once in a while there would be one in which he would find a death mask in the midst of valueless knick knacks. In most cases the owner knew nothing of its history and the Collector bore off his treasure for a trifle. But when a mask was found in this manner neglected in some out of the way corner how was it to be identified? This necessitated laborious research in books, magazines and newspapers and careful comparisons with portraits; but the collector had a keen scent for his trail and sooner or later succeeded in locating each of his finds. Mr Hutton now has about sixty masks in his collection, many of them as far as is known the only copies in existence and he has succeeded in establishing the identity of every one.

The sensation experienced by a visitor on entering Mr Hutton’s study for the first time is likely to be very strange The study is a small front room with a single window in the first story of the house at 247 West Thirty fourth street. There are books in cases about the walls and a writing table at the window littered with manuscripts and writing materials. On the four walls of the bookcases and mantelpiece, and peeking out through a half opened door from shelves in the closet, are the death masks. Their presence pervades the whole room in a weird uncanny way They do not suggest statues in the least. It is as if the old faces of the dead were gathered there in silent assembly.

Jonathan Swift

Nearly every one of the sixty masks has a history or an anecdote of peculiar interest attached to it. The mask of Dean Swift for instance is to Mr Hutton’s knowledge the only one in existence. He found it many years ago, shortly after he began his collection, in an old curiosity shop in London. The dealer having no idea of its value asked two shillings for it and was happy to get rid of it at that price. Nearly ten years afterward Mr Hutton was reading an old book written by Oscar Wilde’s father, Sir William Wilde, The Closing Years of Dean Swift. The book was published in 1842. A footnote on one of the pages contained the information that a death mask of Swift had once been in existence and was preserved in Trinity College, Dublin. Some years before the book was written it had disappeared and it was supposed, the note said, to have been destroyed by some accident. How the mask ever found its way from Dublin to a curiosity shop in London or what its history may have been during the intervening generation are mysteries still unsolved.

Laurence Sterne

The mask of Laurence Sterne, the author of Tristram Shandy, has a grewsome history. Sterne died alone and forsaken in London and even the ceremony of a funeral was dispensed with. According to tradition his neglected body was sold to a medical college for dissection. A doctor connected with the institution who had once been an intimate friend of Sterne’s happened to be in the dissecting room when the body was brought in and was horrified to recognize the features of his old companion. The tradition tells how he took the body into his care and gave it a decent burial and as he had known Sterne in his days of renown and was deeply moved by recollections according to Mr Hutton’s theory he made the death mask and preserved it.

Richard Owen

The masks of Daniel Webster, Keats and Prof. Richard Owen, the celebrated English anatomist, were taken from life and the subtle difference between them and the other masks is very pronounced.There is an indescribable expression about the three faces that betokens life just as plainly as the others do death. In Daniel Webster for instance although his eyes are closed and his demeanor outwardly serious there is a look of consciousness and evident amusement at the novel process to which he submitted. The same consciousness and amused feeling are more noticeable in Professor Owen’s face. His eyes are closed and there is an indication of an effort to maintain a serious expression, but the suggestion of a smile is playing about the corners of the mouth and the lips are pressed together to keep the smile from spreading. The poet Keats was subject to the same sensations and he looks as conscious as if he were waiting for the snap of a camera.

John Keats

There is a mask of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, the author of School for Scandal, and one of Thackeray which was made by Sir William Thompson and is probably the only one in existence. Another copy was made for Thackeray’s family but it appeared to them so unsatisfactory that it was destroyed. When Thackeray’s family had their copy of the mask destroyed it is said that they supposed it was the only one made and they are still in ignorance that another copy exists and is in Mr Hutton’s collection.



There is no record anywhere in biographies or contemporaneous literature that a death mask was taken of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and even Coleridge’s immediate descendants were ignorant of its existence until last summer, when Mr Hutton brought the information to Coleridge’s grandson Richard Hartley Coleridge, who is now writing his biography. When Mr Hutton came upon the mask he felt convinced that it was that of Coleridge and last summer while in England he wrote to the grandson for information on the subject. Mr Coleridge replied that he had investigated all the details of his grandfather’s death in connection with the biography he was writing but had failed to find any record of a death mask and had consequently come to the conclusion that there was none in existence. He had once heard a tradition however that one had been taken. Mr Hutton thereupon sent a photograph of his mask to Mr Coleridge and it will be used in the forthcoming biography.

Hutton’s Isaac Newton
Newton in Westminster Abbey

The mask of Sir Isaac Newton which is one of the oldest in the collection hangs beside a copy of the bust of Newton in Westminster Abbey. The contrast between the two is suggestive. The bust it is said was made directly from the mask but it has been embellished and idealized so much that it retains only the slightest trace of resemblance. The statue represents a handsome wide awake young man with a pointed nose and small full lipped mouth. There is nothing characteristic about it, the head being like that of a court dandy. The real face however, as shown by the death mask, although old homely and irregular, is the face of a philosopher. The nose is large and ill shaped, the mouth of uncommon size, straight and flat, with heavy irregular lips. Two copies of the death mask were taken when Newton died, one of which is preserved in the Royal Society London where he was president, and the other it appears was presented to Trinity College, Cambridge. After Mr Hutton had found his mask he wrote to the Royal Society asking permission to see their copy Permission being granted, he took with him a photograph of his own mask and found on comparison that the two were identical.

Bruce (left) and Burns (above). Hutton: “The difference in the shape of the two Scotchmen’s heads is very marked.”

In the collection are two masks of skulls, one of Robert Bruce and the other of Robert Burns. Bruce’s was taken it is said about fifty years ago when the grave was opened at Queen Victoria’s order. The skeleton was identified as that of Bruce from the fact that some of the ribs on the left side were missing where the heart was cut out to be taken to Palestine. Queen Victoria, who is very proud of her descent from the Scottish chieftain, had a mask of his skull taken and put in one of her museums. Mr Hutton’s copy was probably made at the same time and it is supposed to be the only other one in existence. The skull of Bruce takes in the whole head including the jaws and teeth that of Burns is only the skull proper. It was taken when Burns’ grave was opened for the burial of his wife. The difference in the shape of the two Scotchmen’s heads is very marked.

Elizabeth I
Mary, Queen of Scots

A mask of Queen Elizabeth which hangs beside that of Mary Queen of Scots was not taken directly from the dead features of the Queen if Mr Hutton’s information be true, but from a wax reproduction of it. The story is rather curious. In the old days of England up to the time of Queen Elizabeth, it was the custom to carry the exposed bodies of the dead monarchs through the streets from London to Westminster Abbey where they were interred, the purpose being to assure the populace that the king or queen was dead and not spirited away or cast into prison by intrigue. By Elizabeth’s time however the custom seems to have fallen into disuse and instead of carrying the real body of the dead queen through the streets for the rabble to gaze at a waxen image was exhibited in its place. The waxen images in many cases are preserved in Westminster Abbey at the present time and it was from the one of Elizabeth that Mr Hutton’s mask was taken.

In the strange gathering of great men besides those mentioned are the masks of George Washington, Henry Clay, John C Calhoun, Walter Scott, Edmund Burke, Sir Thomas More, Oliver Cromwell, Aaron Burr, Edmund Kean, David Garrick, Frederick the Great, Robespierre, Marat, Mirabeau, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Haydn, Wordsworth, Charles XII, Napoleon III, Dion Boucicault, John McCullough, Harry Edwards, and General Sherman. The last letter that Lawrence Barrett wrote before he died was to the family of General Sherman asking them for permission to have a copy of General Sherman’s death mask made for his friend Hutton in whose collection Barrett was greatly interested. Before the answer came granting the request, Barrett was dead and on the following Saturday night Mr Hutton went to the house with Augustus St Gaudens the sculptor, and together they took his death mask.

“When he [Edwin Booth] returned and went to his room at a late hour that night and lighted the gas, the first object that met his eye was the dead face of Lawrence Barrett turned toward him on the table.”

It is a curious coincidence that the last letter that General Sherman wrote before he died was to Lawrence Barrett. Two copies of Barrett’s mask were taken. Mr Hutton kept one and presented the other to Edwin Booth to be kept in the Players Club. Booth was playing in Brooklyn at the time and he saw the bundle addressed to him lying on the billiard table of the club just as he was about to leave after his dinner It was wrapped in cloths and paper. “What is that?” he said to the porter. “It is something from Mr Hutton,” the man answered. Booth, not knowing what it was, directed that it should be taken up to his room for fear that something might happen to it. Then he went to Brooklyn. When he returned and went to his room at a late hour that night and lighted the gas, the first object that met his eye was the dead face of Lawrence Barrett turned toward him on the table. The man had removed the coverings and left it exposed. In Booth’s shattered state the shock that the sight caused him was painfully severe and he said it was days before he recovered from it.

Ben Caunt

Apropos of Booth and the Hutton collection The Sun gives another anecdote. Among the masks is one of Ben Caunt, the prize fighter, showing a sturdy face with a fringe of whiskers. When Booth entered Mr Hutton’s study for the first time to see the collection he recognized it immediately. “Hello! Why that’s Ben Caunt,” he said. “It’s almost fifty years since I saw him but he made such a deep impression on me that I remember him distinctly.” He said that when he was a little boy about thirteen years of age Ben Caunt came to this country and was greeted with a great popular furore. Booth’s father among others went to him for some boxing lessons while he was in this city and Edwin, like all other small boys, had heard about Caunt and his great achievements and pronounced his name with awe though he had never seen him. One night the elder Booth happened to take Edwin to some pot house where they came upon Ben Caunt standing amid a group of admirers. When Edwin saw the great Ben Caunt notice his father and shake hands with him it was he said the proudest moment of his life.

The Hutton collection has been in process of formation for a quarter of a century. The article in The Sun gained additional interest from a number of excellent drawings of the more important masks and a spirited sketch of Mr Hutton in his study surrounded by his plaster souvenirs.

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