KEATS, John (1795-1821) -- DEATH MASK. Plaster cast with light brown patina, inscribed "C. Smith London No 231" at crown and "Keats" at throat, hanging hook at back. Approximately 270 x 150 x 140mm. (Small chip at side of throat, a few minor scratches in the patina.) [London: Charles Smith, ca.1886-91].
A RARE CAST IN EXCEPTIONALLY FINE CONDITION. John Keats died in Rome during the night of 23 February 1821, attended only by his friend, the artist Joseph Severn. The death mask was taken the next day, probably by Gherardi, Canova's mask maker, at the request of Dr. James Clark, Keats's attending doctor. Casts of a hand and foot were also made. Severn used these casts for his posthumous full-length portrait of Keats (now in the National Portrait Gallery), which he undertook in an attempt to exorcize "the impression [of Keats's death which] was so painfull on my mind" and to memorialize his friend with "the most pleasant remembrance." Severn had begun the portrait by 16 May 1821, when John Taylor, Keats's publisher, wrote to him requesting that he send Taylor the casts. Severn replied that "the casts I must send another time because I still require them to finish the picture from." The portrait, finished about 1822, is thus in part a contemporary depiction of the death mask; it is among the most enduring images of Keats.
Severn did later send the death mask cast, along with its matrix, to Taylor, and they were sold at Taylor's death to Richard Monkton Milnes, Lord Houghton for £1.14 (sale at Christie's, 17 March 1865, lot 29). Lord Houghton's copy of the death mask is now at the Houghton Library, Harvard University. The matrix for that cast, now lost and probably no longer extant, was used by Charles Smith of London (active between 1886 and 1891) to make copies. Although undoubtedly not uncommon in their day (Gittings states that they were available for sale up to 1921 for 2s 6d at first, rising to 5s 0d), the Smith casts of the death mask are now very scarce. Only two other casts are known. Because of their rarity and the oxymoronic claims made for the surviving copies, such as "the only authentic copy", confusion has arisen which can be allayed by identifying the known copies. They are:
I. Gherardi (?) cast, made at Rome, 1821:
1. The Severn-Taylor-Houghton copy, now at the Houghton Library, Harvard University.
2. The Severn-Birkenhead/Furneaux/Smith copy, purported to be "the original death mask". Possibly a copy taken from the Rome matrix, but also possibly a Smith copy. In writing to the Times Literary Supplement (30 June 1950, p.450) to denounce the newly "discovered" Preston copy (see below), three of Severn's granddaughters, Lady Birkenhead, Mrs. C.H. Furneaux and Mrs. Joan Smith, remembered a copy in their mother's house at Oxford with a paper on the back by Severn identifying it as the death mask. Lady Birkenhead believed that her mother, who disliked the mask very much, had probably had it destroyed (NPG archive).
II. Smith cast, London, ca. 1886-91:
1. The Meynell copy. Formerly on loan to the National Portrait Gallery (NPG 4031), offered at Sotheby's 10 July 1986, lot 86, sold after-sale to Eton College. Reproduced in Regency Portraits and Gittings, op.cit.
2. The J.H. Preston copy, a scraped down (and thus defaced) cast, which was "discovered" about 1947 and reproduced by Dorothy Hewlett in Neville Rogers's Keats Shelley and Rome (1949). It was bronzed before May 1957, and is now at Keats House, Hampstead. Lady Birkenhead and her two sisters (see above, I:2) initially denounced the Preston copy as inauthentic, stating that it bore "no resemblance to the original death mask" which they remembered. On personal examination they modified their view, and believed it simply to be an inferior copy.
3. The present copy.
In addition, a defective matrix was reported to have been found about 1980 in a basement of the Victoria and Albert Museum. That matrix is in fact of the life mask, not the death mask. It had formerly been used by the casting service at the V & A, where up to 1936 it was identified as the death mask, but by 1939 had been ascribed to Robert Haydon (who made the life mask). It is presumably a matrix from the Brucciani firm of cast-makers, which had made copies of the Haydon life mask from the mid-19th-century and which had been absorbed into the V & A casting service in the 1920s. The matrix was transferred from the V & A to the Casting Service at the British Museum in the early 1980s. One copy was made from it, which is now at Keats House. Christie's are grateful to the Sculpture Department at the V & A and the Casting Service at the British Museum for providing information concerning this matrix.
The present copy of the death mask is thus one of only three copies made by Charles Smith known to survive. There is no copy in the National Portrait Gallery, Victoria and Albert Museum, or British Museum. It is a true and famous likeness of the poet, and it is in remarkably fine condition. The only other copy offered at auction, the Meynell copy, was restored and worn, and the Preston copy has been ruined by scraping and bronzing.
Literature: Robert Gittings, The Mask of Keats, London: 1956; Richard Walker, Regency Portraits, London: National Portrait Gallery, 1985; and we are grateful to the National Portrait Gallery for making available archival material.
Offered with a small photograph of Keats's grave at Rome, framed together with pressed ferns and other Keats mementos. (2)