Encounters in the Fitzwilliam: Get Your Hands Off My Death Mask!

Becky Grubb 25 April 2019
Image Credit: Hew Morrison

Sometimes the old ways are the best.

The recent digital facial recreation of Prince Charles Edward Stuart – ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’ – makes me feel uneasy. It has been created by a forensic artist, Hew Morrison, perhaps better known for his digital reconstruction of ‘Ava’, a woman whose bones, over 4,250 years old, were discovered in the Scottish Highlands last year. For his latest reconstruction, in place of a skull, Morrison has compiled various copies of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s death mask as well as portraits and historical records to create his image. The new digital image of the Prince is now on display at the (imaginatively named) Inverness Art Gallery & Museum, which is an art gallery and museum, in Inverness.

It is an impossible mission to recreate a face digitally with the qualities of lifelikeness (as I think Morrison’s recreation demonstrates, even with its highly sophisticated technological methods). But I want to go a little way further and suggest that Morrison’s digital recreation was not only flawed from the outset, but also a perverse creative act.

One only has to look at one of the hidden fruits of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. In the back storerooms of the museum, wrapped within a plastic box, is a wax head cast from the death mask of Charles Talbot (1660-1718). While he lived, Charles was the only man to have held three great public offices at once, acting as Lord Chamberlain, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, and Lord High Treasurer of Great Britain at the death of Queen Anne in 1714. The head presents us with many mysteries about its history but perhaps most extraordinary of all is the very fact of its survival. The wax head came into the possession of the Fitzwilliam Museum through the bequest of 7th Viscount Fitzwilliam in 1816, but was not accessioned (that is to say put into a collection) until it was found unrecorded in 1999, in the Fitz’s storerooms. Latterly placed in a wooden, glazed display case, it is uncertain as to whether George Talbot’s death mask was originally created for a display bust, or for the head of a funeral effigy.

Charles’ wax head makes us wonder what death masks were for; in England, during the early 18th Century, it seems death masks were used to create funeral effigies, such as that of Edmund Sheffield, 2nd Duke of Buckingham, or waxwork statues of prominent figures such as those displayed in Westminster Abbey. One of the Westminster figures is of the Duchess of Richmond. The Duchess paid the famous waxwork artist Mrs Goldsmith £260 (around £60,000 in today’s money) to have a life-size effigy of herself made, stipulating that her parrot be featured in the work. These figures were bespoke status symbols and acted as means to design the memory of an individual for years to come. These were attempts, in essence, to control how they would be viewed by posterity.

Concern for preserving the image of an individual for future ages coincided with a wider debate regarding the relationship between the living and the dead: a debate that has not entirely left us. After the Reformation, the Catholic notion of purgatory, key to the function of so much pre- Reformation material culture, was replaced by the Protestant belief that the soul departs at the moment of death to heaven (or to hell). Clare Gittings, an historian, notes that funerary practices after the Reformation became increasingly detached from any eschatological purpose.[1] Wax effigies were used as a way of fashioning the self permanently on earth rather than as media for prayers to aid the journey onwards of the deceased.

Unlike all of the Westminster waxworks, except the supine figure of Edmund Sheffield, the eyes on Charles’s wax head are shut. This comes as a rather shocking reminder that you are indeed looking at a death mask. Looking at the head close up, I felt something of the uncanny as I was transported to an encounter with his face moments after he had expired. For a brief moment he felt quite alive, and in the same moment the mask’s very existence reminded me of his death.

From left to right: Portrait of Bonnie Prince Charlie, Death Mask of Bonnie Prince Charlie, New digital depiction of Bonnie Prince Charlie, 2019, by Hew Morrison,  The Wax head of Charles Talbot, c.1718, Fitzwilliam Museum Cambridge, Portrait of Charles Talbot by Sir Geoffrey Kneller, c.1700.


A death mask attempts to leave an exact imprint, an impression, to capture a person in intense detail for others to rediscover in the future. Morrison comments that as the work on Prince Bonnie’s face progressed ‘what was revealed was the face of a curious, strong, but heavily-burdened character’. A death mask is a way to outlive oneself, and in Morrison’s defence, his image of the Prince is a continuation of that tradition and that desire for an exact impression which I don’t doubt is expressed by the wax head of Charles.

It is not difficult to imagine that the people who financed their wax replicas would have endorsed, in principle, the attempt to recreate their image as precisely as possible, even if they could not have conceived of using technology like this. However, I am left unconvinced that this use of technology has achieved the ineffable experience a death mask has the power to create. Thinking back to my encounter with Charles’s wax head in that overfull storeroom in the Fitz, I find it galling to imagine virtually prizing open his eyes, filling them with colour and adding locks of digitally exquisite hair to enliven and perfect his dead face. It feels perverse to use a death mask to make a living face. Obviously, as an active, if sometimes unwilling, member of the twenty-first century, I am bound to acknowledge that the artist is dead and the matter is entirely a decision for Morrison to make: but I can’t help feeling he has missed the point.

Morrison describes the process of superimposing a straight nose from one of the copies of the Prince’s death mask, onto the same area of the Inverness copy (which had shifted during its casting process, creating a rather wonky nose). A clever manoeuvre, but one which tries to beat a system that I would rather embrace. The visible marks of the failure to immortalise somebody successfully is part of the joy of a death mask, part of the point. Upon seeing the Bonnie Prince’s death mask digitalised into a living Bonnie Prince, I felt suddenly protective toward Charles Talbot’s head. What if a similar fate might one day transform him into gimmick? What if we were to ‘correct’ an indescribably arresting and lifelike object?

I can’t recommend enough that you send a request to the Fitzwilliam Museum to see it. Don the special gloves and hold it for yourself! There is nothing like it: it is time travel. The death mask evokes something beyond merely the physiognomy it fails perfectly to capture. The death mask’s power is in its ability to demonstrate the inability of individuals to make their mark forever. So thanks, Mr Morrison, but keep your digital facial recreations in Inverness, and stay away from my Charles Talbot.

[1] C. Gittings, Death (1984) p.40.