So the alleged Shakespeare death mask is having its unprepossessing head hauled above the parapet again. A week or so ago I received a polite message from a television company telling me that their film ‘Death Masks’ is to be broadcast at 9pm on Monday 13 September in the UK on History Channel. They said I gave them an interview about it some time ago. Frankly I’d forgotten all about it – presumably they came to film me here at the Shakespeare Centre. Anyhow I looked up their website and was surprised to find that the film lasts for two hours. I found some fascinating images relating to the programme. One of them shows the making of a mask in the early years of the twentieth century – a most undignified looking procedure for the wretched but happily insensible corpse. And there are other images of interesting subjects over the centuries. There’s a wonderful one of Henry VII – it looks like a life portrait, mainly because, exceptionally, he’s been given eyes. The eyeless ones include one of Dr Johnson showing an impressive bone cage, and the macabrely sunken and toothless face of the Duke of Wellington, who died at the age of 83 in 1852.
Then again yesterday I had a phone call from a Sunday newspaper asking me about the death mask that is said to be of Shakespeare and which obviously will also feature in the programme. Its story goes back to1849 when Ludwig Becker, a portrait painter from Darmstadt who had settled in Mainz, took to the British Museum in London a miniature oil painting that he had bought a few years previously. It had belonged to Count Francis von Kesselstadt and then sold on to the antique dealer from whom Becker bought it. It showed a corpse crowned with a laurel wreath – traditional tribute to a dead poet – and lying in state. Becker believed that it depicted Shakespeare, who died in 1616, but it is far more likely to represent Ben Jonson who died in 1637, the year in which the miniature appears to have been painted. Becker managed to reconcile the date with his claim that the picture showed Shakespeare by proposing that 1637 was merely the year in which it had been copied – an obvious fudging of the evidence. He learned that Kesselstadt had also owned a Plaster of Paris cast of a face, which he claimed he had tracked down and bought from a junk dealer. He believed that the cast showed the same person as the painting. Not everyone agreed, if only because the mask bears the date 1616 – the year of Shakespeare’s death – not 1637. Probably the date was added at a later date in order to bolster the claim that the mask represented Shakespeare.
The mask raises a number of questions. Was Becker telling the truth? If it is Shakespeare’s death mask, how did it get to Germany and why doesn’t it look more like the Droeshout engraving and the bust? How likely is it that a death mask would have been made of a man of Shakespeare’s social status? Nevertheless many people were impressed by it and by the claims made for it. It eventually went back to the ducal museum in Darmstadt.
It made an impact. A charming painting of 1857 by Henry Wallis showing ‘The Sculptor of the Stratford Bust before the Finished Work’, now in the collections of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, shows a sculptor in his studio looking over the River Avon, with his children playing beside him and a view of Holy Trinity Church visible through the window. An assistant holds the mask from which he has carved the likeness.
The mask is also said to have provided the model for the head of Shakespeare on the late-nineteenth century monument created by Lord Ronald Gower now to be seen in the Theatre gardens. But the art historian M. H. Spielmann, in an Encyclopaedia Britannica article of 1904, expressed disbelief. The mask was put up for sale in 1960, but remained in Darmstadt. Its cause was taken up in 1995 by Professor Hildegard Hammerschmidt-Hummel, who initiated forensic tests which claimed to demonstrate its authenticity. She describes all this exhaustively in her book The True Face of William Shakespeare (2006), where she interprets an apparent blemish on the right eye of the mask as evidence that he suffered from eye cancer. To my mind it might just as well be a stray drop of plaster. I’m very sceptical about the whole story.