The death mask is a curious historical niche which attracts considerable interest. They are made by taking a cast of the face in wax or plaster, usually hours after death. Before photography, they were the most truthful representation of the departed. Such masks have been found in ancient Egyptian tombs, archaeological sites in the near east and Roman portrait sculptures.
The best known mask is that of Tutankhamun, placed on the body to strengthen the spirit and guard the soul from evil as an element of the rite of mummification. In the seventeenth century it was common for the death mask to be used as part of the effigy of the deceased, and as an aid to portrait sculptures for tomb effigies. Then there were those used for art and representations of famous events, the most noted proponent being Madame Tussaud. She learned the process from her uncle Philippe Curtius, a Swiss physician who had turned his hobby into a lucrative trade.
The Royal Society holds two death masks. The first, of Sir Isaac Newton, is made of plaster with a wax coating. It was the work of the sculptor John Michael Rysbrack, and was used in the preparation of Newton’s memorial in Westminster Abbey, before being purchased and presented to the Society in 1839 by Samuel Hunter Christie FRS. Newton is one of the best known of our Fellows, and was President from 1703 to his death in 1727. The mask seems to be a rather tasteful one, and is one of our most iconic treasures; it was scanned in 3D last year by the Cambridge Microsoft Research Laboratory.
The second is a plaster mask of the mathematician, physicist and astronomer Sir James Hopwood Jeans (1877-1946), who served as Secretary and Vice President of the Royal Society and was widely regarded as one of the foremost scientific communicators of his day. Jeans’s papers were deposited at the Royal Society after his death, and include some interesting correspondence from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle after a talk by Jeans on the BBC in which he denounced the unscientific nature of spiritualism.
In her autobiography, Joy Adamson (the author of Born Free) describes a tragic incident in 1946, when she visited her close friend Suzi Jeans, a concert organist and Sir James’s second wife. Adamson recounts how she was alone in a room with Jeans when he collapsed and died of coronary thrombosis, and describes seeing his face ’transformed by a spiritual radiance which I felt … expressed his genius’. She was so impressed that she suggested a death mask be made; this was kept by Suzi Jeans in her music room until it was deposited with the Royal Society by her son in 1993.
Masks could also be made of the living. In 1669, four years after he had been elected a Fellow, Samuel Pepys took the fashionable step of having a life mask made. He describes the experience as follows: “I was vexed to be forced to daub all my face over with Pomatum [scented ointment], but it was pretty to feel how soft and easy it is done on the face, and by and by, by degrees, how hard it becomes, that you cannot break it, and sets so close that you cannot pull it off, and yet so easy that is as soft as a pillow.” For Pepys, the slight feeling of claustrophobia came second to his enduring curiosity – a trait expected to be displayed by a Fellow of the Royal Society!