Death Mask Trivia

The life of John Keats the man: his family, his friends, and his contemporaries.

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Death Mask Trivia

Postby Malia » Fri Apr 28, 2006 5:18 am

I know, the subject line sounds pretty morbid, huh? :lol: But I thought you all might like to read what Keats biographer Dorothy Hewlett has to say about it.

When my brother Matt went to Rome, he bought me a book printed in the 1940's about Keats and Shelley--focusing primarily on the Keats-Shelley Memorial House. One section of the book is called "The Death Mask of John Keats". I suspect that the article was written in the 1930's or 1940's. It reads as follows:

A lively interest in the Keats world has been excited by the recent discovery of this cast of the death mask [ed note: there is a picture of the death mask on the opposite page]; though why it should be regarded as a discovery is in itself a minor mystery. The cast, though advertised for many years in the trade catalogue of a London firm at a trifling cost, appears entirely to have escaped the attention of Keats scholars. When it was first brought to my notice I put out a wide-spread inquiry but, although they surely must exist, I have not heard of a single replica. One illustrious and hallowed example, undoubtedly in existence up to 1913 (again unaccountably overlooked by Keatsians) appeared in the Browning Sale Catalogue as item 1394, "a Plaster Death Mask of Keats on a circular base", with an appended note, "This head of one so early loved and admired by the young Browning had in his long widowerhood an additional value of association: for thirteen of their fifteen years of marriage it had hung in his wife's drawing room at the Casa Guidi, Florence.

The matrix of the mask, taken, perhaps by the Roman mask-maker, Gherardi, the day after Keats died, passed into the hands of his publisher, John Taylor, and at his death was, in 1865, bought by Lord Houghton. We do not know where it is now. No comparison of cast with its matrix being, therefore, possible, a remote doubt as to authenticity must be acknowledged; though, apart from the strong resemblance to the life mask, the likeness of later portraits of Keats is marked and especailly to the one at Keats House Hampstead taken by Severn on board the Maria Crowther. Further evidence is given by measurements taken with the craniometer of both masks by Professor F. Wood Jones, F.R.S., of the Royal College of Surgeons who, together with Mr. T.B. Layton, D.S.O., M.S., of Guys, has examined the cast. Both gentlemen are of the opinion that "there is nothing incompatible with both masks being of the same man, living or dead".

In comparing the masks, readers will notice that, although the face of the dead Keats is emaciated, marked with suffering, the strong mobile mouth has the same slight upward slant, the same hint of humor.
--Dorothy Hewlett
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Postby dks » Fri Apr 28, 2006 5:22 am

:shock: I saw the life and death masks in person...my eyes welled up and it was all I could do to hold back the floodgates... :cry:

Malia! MY brother's name is Matt!!! :shock:
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Re: Death Mask Trivia

Postby Credo Buffa » Fri Apr 28, 2006 5:31 am

Malia wrote:I know, the subject line sounds pretty morbid, huh? :lol:

Psh. . . yeah! I read that and thought, "What the blankety-blank bleep, Malia?!" :P

Aside from that bit, though, thanks for sharing this! It's so interesting to read comments from when these little tidbits of Keats were still emerging. Oh, and this:

Malia wrote:No comparison of cast with its matrix being, therefore, possible, a remote doubt as to authenticity must be acknowledged; though, apart from the strong resemblance to the life mask, the likeness of later portraits of Keats is marked and especailly to the one at Keats House Hampstead taken by Severn on board the Maria Crowther.


Is this referring to the same drawing that you just posted? If so, it seems to suggest that this was a relatively well-known image of Keats when this was published. So what happened between then and now that so many of us here (due to our dependence on contemporary biographies) didn't even know it existed? :?
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Re: Death Mask Trivia

Postby Malia » Fri Apr 28, 2006 5:23 pm

Is this referring to the same drawing that you just posted? If so, it seems to suggest that this was a relatively well-known image of Keats when this was published. So what happened between then and now that so many of us here (due to our dependence on contemporary biographies) didn't even know it existed? :?


I'm fairly certain that it is referring to the drawing I posted. The only two drawings of Keats on the Maria Crowther that I know of are the one I posted (which the author said was housed at Keats House, London--just as Hewlett says) and a very rough sketch of Keats lying in his bunk on board the ship. That sketch is so rough that it is just a bunch of lines and circles--you can't tell that it is Keats per se.

Who knows why contemporary bios have left those great images of Keats (and photos of his family and friends) out of their books. It is sad. Most of the interesting--and obscure--pics and drawings are found in bios that are not as well written, unfortunately.
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Postby dks » Fri Apr 28, 2006 6:02 pm

I really love that sketch, Malia--it really shows the contour of his face with his hair sheered like that--Severn was a talented portraitist. He really captured immediacy whenever he sketched Keats.

I don't recall seeing that at Wentworth in London...I wonder if I possible *GASP* :shock: missed it??

I walked every inch, nook and cranny of that house--we practically closed the place down...I just don't recall seeing it... :?
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Postby Malia » Fri Apr 28, 2006 6:05 pm

dks wrote:I don't recall seeing that at Wentworth in London...I wonder if I possible *GASP* :shock: missed it??

I walked every inch, nook and cranny of that house--we practically closed the place down...I just don't recall seeing it... :?


Well, I should have emphasized that the Hewlett article and the book where I got the Keats sketch were both written in the 1940's, so things might have changed since then. I have no clue where the sketch is nowadays. I don't remember seeing it when I visited Keats House eleven years ago--though my memory could be failing me.
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Postby Credo Buffa » Fri Apr 28, 2006 11:17 pm

dks wrote:I don't recall seeing that at Wentworth in London...I wonder if I possible *GASP* :shock: missed it??

When were you there? When I was there this last fall, there were a lot of things missing that were supposedly supposed to be in the collections. . . probably due to the ongoing research and repairs to the house itself.
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Postby dks » Sat Apr 29, 2006 3:59 am

Credo Buffa wrote:
dks wrote:I don't recall seeing that at Wentworth in London...I wonder if I possible *GASP* :shock: missed it??

When were you there? When I was there this last fall, there were a lot of things missing that were supposedly supposed to be in the collections. . . probably due to the ongoing research and repairs to the house itself.


I was there January 13th. I still remember looking out of the big beautiful window overlooking the garden from the reading room... :shock:
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Postby Credo Buffa » Sat Apr 29, 2006 4:09 am

Jan. 13 of this year or last year?
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Postby dks » Sat Apr 29, 2006 6:00 am

Credo Buffa wrote:Jan. 13 of this year or last year?


January 13th of this year.
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Postby Credo Buffa » Sat Apr 29, 2006 6:03 am

Ah, so you perhaps saw similar to what I did. Was the place pretty empty (with the exception of some furniture and pictures on the walls) for you as well? Do you remember what you did see?
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Postby dks » Sat Apr 29, 2006 2:59 pm

Credo Buffa wrote:Ah, so you perhaps saw similar to what I did. Was the place pretty empty (with the exception of some furniture and pictures on the walls) for you as well? Do you remember what you did see?


I remember seeing the library and the books, the masks, the ring, lock of hair, period furniture...not much else...we weren't allowed to take pictures so I'm going on my mind's eye here...come to think of it...it was fairly "empty."
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Postby Credo Buffa » Sat Apr 29, 2006 3:05 pm

See, I couldn't even find the lock of hair when I was there! :(

I just take a deep breath and remind myself that it's all in service to making the house look more like it did when Keats himself lived there. . .

I took an "illegal" picture inside the little room from the Severn's "reading" portrait, though. . . but I swear I did it before I saw the sign that said "no pictures"! :shock:
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Postby dks » Sat Apr 29, 2006 3:10 pm

Credo Buffa wrote:See, I couldn't even find the lock of hair when I was there! :(

I just take a deep breath and remind myself that it's all in service to making the house look more like it did when Keats himself lived there. . .

I took an "illegal" picture inside the little room from the Severn's "reading" portrait, though. . . but I swear I did it before I saw the sign that said "no pictures"! :shock:


Damnit!! I'm rebellious enough--I should've snuck an illegal picture, too!!! Ugh!! Good for you, Credo! I'm glad one of bucked the system...See? another reason for you all to join me in London come January!! :wink:
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Postby Credo Buffa » Sat Apr 29, 2006 3:13 pm

See, I felt bad about it, though, as soon as I saw that sign :(

However, Malia has photos from when she was there and you were allowed then. . . so that made me feel a tad bit better :wink: :P

In all honesty, it'd be hard to get a good picture of anything, the rooms were so small! I'm going to try and do a little editing on the one I have (it turned out very dark as I was uber paranoid of using a flash) and try and improve it, since I just got some new photo editing software :D
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