Item Details

William Blake Life Mask in Plaster by James De Ville

Ref# cacf-4839
A painted plaster moulding of William Blake’s life mask.

Originally created by James De Ville in 1823, De Ville was a sculptor and phrenologist who learned his trade whilst employed as an assistant to Joseph Nollekens. Blake who was fifty six when the mould was taken was initially approached by De Ville as he considered him a perfect representation of “imaginative faculty”. Blake, the prolific poet, artist & printmaker was of course praised highly during the period for his expressiveness and creativity and phrenologists would have considered his head to have been the best example of a creative mind available for examination. Phrenology was extremely popular during the early nineteenth century, practitioners believing that the brain was partitioned into localized areas for specific functions and by measuring the skull, information about a specific individuals mind could be gleaned.

Presumably after much flattery, Blake gave his agreement for the cast to be taken, however the cast is not thought to be entirely representative of Blake’s real life demeanour owing to the grimace evident on his face. The process is said to have been somewhat painful for Blake, not only did he endure the application of the plaster with two straws inserted into his nose to allow for breathing, the testimony of George Richmond (painter & draughtsman) also stated that “the unnatural severity of the mouth was caused by the discomfiture of the process 'as the plaster pulled out a quantity of his hair”.

HH Gilchrist later wrote, “That is not like dear Blake’s mouth, such a look of severity was foreign to him — an expression of sweetness and sensibility being habitual: but Blake experienced a good deal of pain when the cast was taken, as the plaster pulled out a quantity of his hair. Mrs. Blake did not like the mask, perhaps the reason being that she was familiar with varying expressions of her husband’s fine face, from daily observation: indeed it was difficult to please her with any portrait — she never liked Phillips’s portrait; but Blake’s friends liked the mask”.

Few original copies of the Blake life mask remain, notable versions are in the National Portrait Gallery and the Fitzwilliam Museum. Both versions are inscribed to the back of the neck with the following, “A66 /PUBd AUG 1 1823 j. DEVILLE, 67 Strand London”. De Ville’s shop premises were located on The Strand where he sold casts and practised phrenology.

This version is of unknown origin but it is considered that the crispness of the detail suggests an early recasting. It also has the same inscription to the back of the neck as the versions held at The Fitzwilliam and the National Portrait Gallery. Given the medium with which it is formed, dating is almost impossible with any precision but these were certainly reproduced and sold throughout the nineteenth century and were reproduced in the early twentieth century in this form by The National Portrait Gallery. Copies of the mask are still being reproduced but only reproduce the face of Blake rather than his entire head.

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