Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Nelson’s Heroic Facial Traits Part II: Images of the Hero

by Kathryn Hadley

Yesterday, I wrote about the latest research by the personologist Naomi Tickle to identify the key facial traits that epitomised heroism. She applied these traits, which included a Roman nose, a pointed chin, set back ears, oval eyebrows and exposed eyelids, to a portrait of Viscount Horatio Nelson and concluded that had the facial characteristics of a hero. I was very skeptical about her conclusions and decided to carry out further research. In particular, what portrait was the study based on? How accurate a representation of Nelson would it have been?

The main image used for the study was the above portrait, which was allegedly studied alongside various other portraits.

The story of this wax effigy of Nelson, which I used to illustrate my article yesterday, provides an insight into some of the limitations of Tickle’s study based on portraits and moulded masks. The wax effigy is a modern reconstruction held at the Royal Naval Museum, which is based on two of three surviving masks of Nelson. The first is known as the Queen Mary mask because it was discovered by Queen Mary, the wife of King George V, in an antique shop on the Isle of Wight. The second is the Nelson-Weekes mask owned by the Weekes family, who are descendents of Nelson’s daughter Horatio. The third mask is held at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. It is known as the Nelson-Ward mask and shows Nelson with his eyes open.

Making life masks was a very popular style of portraiture in the 19th century. Subjects were sat in a tilted chair with their eyes closed. Straws were placed in each nostril to enable the subject to breathe and wet plaster was moulded over the face. When the plaster was dry the mould was then removed.

Although the three masks were originally believed to be death masks taken from Nelson’s face in December 1805, two months after the Battle of Trafalgar, when HMS Victory returned to Portsmouth, there is no evidence to confirm this theory. Moreover, according to scientists, Nelson’s face would have been too decomposed to make a mask. If the masks were therefore taken during Nelson’s lifetime, it would suggest that they were accurate representations of his facial traits.

However, in the Nelson-Ward mask the eyes are open, thus revealing that the mould was touched up shortly afterwards. As for the Nelson-Weekes mask, it is believed that it was cast from a marble bust of Nelson. The Queen Mary mask is considered the most accurate representation because Nelson’s eyes are closed. It was allegedly taken in Vienna at the time of Nelson’s return to Britain from the Mediterranean in 1800.

How can one draw up conclusions about Nelson’s personality based on interpretative forms of arts such as portraits? Even if the portraits were made during the hero’s lifetime, the artists could have flattered their subject in accordance with their own ideals of heroism. Had Tickle based her study primarily on the moulded masks of Nelson, these would not have provided entirely accurate representations of his facial traits either.


Tom said...

Not convinced either! But, maybe there's something in it for Julius Caesar, Dante, etc?

Kathryn said...

Possibly, did have they have some of the facial traits described by Naomi Tickle? It would be interesting to look at some images...

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