08/11/2017
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Napoleon’s death mask at auction

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This fascinating artefact will be offered by Woolley and Wallis Salisbury salerooms on 22 November, with an estimated price of £20,000–£30,0000.

The practice of making plaster casts of the heads or faces of important or wealthy individuals, either before or after death, so that a physical record of their appearance might be left to posterity, was obtained during the 18th and 19th centuries. Napoleon Bonaparte declined to have a cast made while he was still alive, and when he died in captivity at Longwood House on the South Atlantic island of Saint Helena, the creation of a death mask was found to be fraught with difficulty. None of the individuals present had any experience in carrying out such delicate work, and it appears to have taken some time for a supply of the gypsum necessary for the production of plaster to be obtained. Yet here was a man of almost unparalleled historic stature and to his attendants the imperative of preserving his likeness was irresistible. The matter was first referred to Napoleon's personal physician, Francesco Antommarchi, who recoiled from the responsibility (though he was later to claim the credit for the mask). The difficult task fell instead to the surgeon of the 66th Regiment of Foot, Francis Burton M.D., who was able to make a single 'negative' mould of the Emperor's head. The unique original 'positive' cast that he produced (unique because the front of the mould was destroyed during the removal of the cast) was the progenitor of all subsequent Napoleon death masks.

The process by which further copies were made is not well documented, but many were produced in Europe by Antommarchi, when, following Burton's death in 1828, the Italian capitalised on his pretended authorship of the original mask (to which he appears to have had had access for the purpose of making copies, courtesy of the Count and Countess Bertrand, who stole it from Burton at Longwood). These were sold by subscription, and extant examples include an extension below the neck impressed with a seal mark. Various other copies were also made in Europe and elsewhere, but the most important subset comprises those that were made on the Island of St Helena itself.

The so-called King Mask (offered here) came to public notice in the late 1960s, at which time it's owner, Miss Phyllis King, was considering its sale, and appears also to have included it in an exhibition devoted to Napoleon. The mask was the subject of correspondence in the national papers, and of particular interest are the comments of two individuals: the recognised authority Baron Eugene de Veauce, author of Les Maques Mortuares de Napoleon; and an antiquarian named Douglas Maher. Between them these men authenticated the handwriting of Sir Hudson Lowe, thus setting the keystone of this mask's provenance.

Offered with a large collection of letters and other ephemera, including a verified sample of Sir Hudson Lowe’s handwriting, mainly dating from the late 1969, when the King Mask was most recently held up to scrutiny.

 

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