Prior to the advent of photography, the first order of business when a person of significance died was to take an imprint of their face. The purpose was to enable the creation of posthumous sculptures—death masks, if you will. These are meant to resemble what the person looked like at the moment they died. Death masks were created from the faces of well-known men like Dante, Pascal, Newton, Nietzsche, Napoleon, Blake, and Keats, to name a few. During the French Revolution, the woman now known as Madame Tussaud created death masks out of the decapitated heads of Louis XVI and Robespierre.
Death masks fell out of favor after the popularization of photography and the changing nature of European cultural attitudes about the dead. There is, however, at least one man that keeps the craft alive: British sculptor Nick Reynolds. I spoke with Reynolds about his most recent death masks, what it's like to chip off ice from a dead man's face, his rationale for commemorating someone executed on Texas death row, and what it is about them that is so appealing to him.
VICE: What are your most recent death masks? Are you working on any currently?
Nick Reynolds: The last two I did were Peter O'Toole and Sir William Rees Mogg. I'm working on three at the moment. One of them is Dr. Manouchehr Sabetian, an Iranian surgeon. His mask will be finished in bronze and will go on his headstone in Highgate Cemetery which will be my third one there after my dad and Malcolm McLaren.Talk about how you got started doing death masks and what it is about them that appeals to you.
I came into them by accident really. At the particular time in the mid 90s I was doing an exhibition called Cons to Icons and I was exploring the fact that there'd been a sort of "gangster chic" revival. I'd grown up in the shadow of my father being a criminal [Reynold's father is Bruce Reynolds, the mastermind of the 1963 Great Train Robbery] and in those days there was a stigma attached to having a relative in prison. In the mid 90s, that changed. Various criminals that had been locked up since the 60s that were coming out with sort of folkloric status—films and books being made about them. I found this quite strange considering how I'd been brought up. I wanted to explore the paradox of people who are vilified by the media but can also be fated on the celebrity circuit.
I was trying to illustrate this by doing life casts of nine of England's most infamous living criminals. One of the guys on my list was George "Taters" Chatham, a guy who a newspaper had referred to as "the thief of the century." But by the time I tracked him down he'd just died, and I was determined to cast him anyway. I thought, It can't be that different from doing the live cast… except I don't have to worry about them breathing through the mask. I managed to persuade his sister to let me do a cast of him. She was dead against it at first, but then she went and visited him and then she rang me back and said "he had a smile on his face" and that she thought perhaps he'd made his peace with God. What I didn't tell her is that it was just the fact that he had quite weighty cheeks and gravity tends to pull the mouth in a kind of funereal rictus if you like. It was because of that she gave me the go-ahead. He was the first dead person that I did for this show.
What was it that made you think this is something worth pursuing more actively?
After that, a friend of mine died who was a lord and his family were very keen to get a death mask made. The undertaker remembered that he'd read an article about this show, so they rang me up and asked if I would do the death mask. It's only when they said they'd scoured the country to try to find somebody doing it—that nobody does this anymore—that I thought maybe this is something I should specialize in. It's probably [also] got something to do with the fact that I grew up in Mexico and I have the memories of seeing all the death masks that the Mayans had.
I try to keep it pretty small [though]. I don't really advertise; I have a website but you have to be looking for me. There's quite a bit of work that goes into it [and] I don't want to get overwhelmed.What makes these death masks so special?
For me, any kind of other work I do there is nowhere near the amount of satisfaction that I get from work on other mediums—even when I sell them—to handing over a death mask and seeing the reaction that you get. You can see that every wrinkle is a repository for a million memories that can be triggered off. Yeah sure, you can look at a photograph and remember a happy moment, but they're not tangible, they're not tactile, they don't occupy any space. There's something magical about death masks so that's why it's the only area in death that I am really fascinated by.
Where do your death masks get displayed?
Everyone has a slightly different attitude to these kind of things. Some people have them on the wall. Some people actually have them by the side of their bed and talk to them. Some people have them in a drawer and just take them out at special occasions. Some are on tombstones.Do you have a death mask you did that was particularly challenging that stands out to you?
It's pretty well documented—when I had to go to Texas and do the executed prisoner [John Joe Amador]. It was very traumatic, with his family taking the body from the morgue and we took the body to a little shack in the woods and cast his head there. It was all very stressful. His body was still warm. When I cast his face, his skin still reacted to the temperature of the water. He got goose pimples and that came out in the cast. That was probably the most outstanding.
The idea of commemorating someone who was convicted of a capital offense like John Joe Amador is considered quite controversial. Talk about why you did that.
I wouldn't have done it if I thought the guy was guilty. The evidence wouldn't have stood up anywhere other than Texas. The whole point of it was I believed they were killing an innocent man, and that's what that was all about. I'm not glorifying what he is supposed to have done, I'm pointing out how horrible the death penalty is.You mentioned elsewhere that, unlike with Amador, you don't always get access to the body right away. However it is your preference to have immediate access, yes?
That's right. Ideally within the first day. Because [usually] they've been embalmed and it's totally different. They've got as much personality as a piece of cling-filmed chicken on the cold counter of a supermarket. But obviously when they've only just died, the muscles in their face and their eyes…it just really still looks like them sleeping. In the old days when death masks were very very popular—particularly around Victorian times—they believed that you had to do it as soon as possible. In some cases they'd call in the death mask guy before the doctor had come in to officially certify them dead.
Any cases where things didn't quite go as expected?
I had a bit of a disaster once. I did the ex-president of Biafra. A guy called General Ojukwu. They had him in a cooler for quite a long time. They had done quite an expensive reconstruction job using wax and makeup. In the past, I've never had a problem with it, but this particular time when I took the mold off all the bits and pieces that had been added to him came off with the mold. So I was panicking and I'm in the morgue thinking, Well, I've never had to do this before. But I had to redo all the bits before [the family] comes in to view the body. Anyway, did the best job I could. His relatives turned up and they went absolutely bananas. It wasn't how he looked—it's the moment they realized he was wearing makeup in the first place that they threw an absolute fit. Nobody had set their expectations. [So] that's why I like to get to them before they've had much work done to them. That was probably the most stressful mask that I've done.
I notice that most of the death masks you've done have been of men. Why is that?
I've only done one [woman]. I know, it's strange. It was a top United Nations official from Switzerland I believe. I did my mother too but obviously that wasn't a commission. But yeah, haven't had much call. Generally speaking, the men tend to go first and it's the widows who request them.What do you think it is about displaying a bust with a post-mortem facial expression that makes it more fitting than say, something of them when they were still alive?
They're two entirely different things. To some people, I say if you want a mask of them to remember them by, it's probably better to do it while they're alive. Because every time you look at it you'll remember them alive, you won't think of them dead obviously. But the whole point of a death mask is that it is the final portrait. The fact that it's taken of them when they're dead kind of imbibes the sculpture with a special kind of ethereal quality, if you like. It's almost as if in the process of casting the person's face, part of the mystery of death become entwined in the finished sculpture. I guess, because the person's dead, it's easy for you to suspend belief to kind of imagine that somehow a part of their spirit could possibly be residing within that. You don't get that with a life mask. It doesn't have any spiritual capability, I don't think.The Greeks and the Romans believed in animism, that if you made a statue out of something—through incantations, prayers, music, whatever—they could summon up the spirit of that person to inhabit that sculpture. It was like a residence for them in our world, if you like. So for me there's a lot more power to a death mask. It's them dead. There's something very mystical about that.I heard you mention sometimes you've had to chip away ice off someone's face?
That was a friend of mine who was a lord.. He had an epileptic fit in the bath just before he was due to inherit his estate. So the autopsy was a very long, drawn-out thing. He was actually on ice for a year before I got to cast him. He was pretty much frozen solid by then, so I had to chip bits of ice off and use a hair dryer so I could actually get to him.Follow Simon Davis on Twitter.