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Face To Face With Talbot's Death Mask

Accredited Icon member, Valerie Kaufmann, recently took to work conserving the death mask of Charles Talbot, The Duke of Shrewsbury

The head had been delivered to Plowden and Smith from the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, where it had been part of the original collection of Richard, Viscount Fitzwilliam of Merrion. Valerie detailed her conservation in a blog for Plowden and Smith. Here, she kindly shared more of her experience regarding the conservation of this remarkable bees wax head.

When viewing an actual death mask I cannot help but be moved by its presence

“When viewing an actual death mask I cannot help but be moved by its presence; however, I find the earlier intervention of others takes away the ‘mystery’; the direct connection with the person is lost to me.  So it goes without saying that I feel it is essential to make repairs as unobtrusive as possible.  Not an easy undertaking when considering reversibility and longevity of techniques and materials.

For me, the actual death mask of Edmund Sheffield, Duke of Buckingham in Westminster Abbey, still retains some of his ‘presence’ when on display in full regalia.

With regard to Charles Talbot, I felt it fascinating to be involved with the renowned statesman, but I cannot pretend to be able to detect in the death mask, the character of the man complicit in the conspiracy to invite William of Orange to seize power from our Catholic King James II.

So far as the conservation is concerned, the same ethics apply; and, you can only do with a piece what it will permit, hence the reason I feel I work ‘with’ a piece, not ‘on’ it.” 

“I have worked with several funeral effigies and three or four death masks in private and public collections and large institutions. A funeral effigy is not necessarily a ‘death mask’; and the two are not always distinct.  For my first introduction to a wax funeral effigy in the early 1980s, I was asked to report on the condition of Sarah Hare, (d. 9 April 1744) in Stow Bardolph Church, Essex.  Sarah Hare is known to have left detailed instructions for an effigy to be made, ‘If I do not execute this in my life I desire it may be done after my death…’ (extract from her will, dated 10 August 1743, Hare family papers, Record Office, Norwich) . This effigy – with ‘life’ or ‘death’ mask - is thought to be the only original (British) funeral effigy to exist outside the collection in Westminster Abbey.*  “

Talbot’s death mask presented its own challenges.


“The first challenge for this particular project was the urgent response to damage that was about to impact on a planned day of publicity.  Early animal glue had broken down.  Repairs had to be made to save the day and these repairs must not inhibit the possibility of a full conservation/restoration programme at a later date.  The most difficult technical aspect was to preserve the integrity of the right eye, with the eyelids having been broken and left vulnerable to loss.”

Valerie’s work on the mask also required her to navigate around previous repair work.

“Previous restoration always complicates and lengthens a programme of conservation and results cannot be as satisfactory as if repairing a recently damaged piece.  One of the most unfortunate finds, generally in wax models, is an ill-matched or badly aligned ‘welded’ repair - very difficult to resolve satisfactorily.  Sometimes, when dealing with wax, there is no going back and to remove a problem may be to enlarge it.   Animal glue can also have the effect of losing the fine edges of original breaks in wax, if it was originally used too warm.  Old adhesives do not always respond consistently to removal and the cleaning process itself is an intervention with potential for further loss.”  

Further information on Charles Talbot’s death mask can be found on the Plowden and Smith website

*Ref.  E.J. Pyke’s ‘Biographical Dictionary of Wax Modellers’ 

All images reproduced with the permission of the Fitzwilliam Museum, with the exception of the image of Valerie Kaufmann, which was kindly provided by her.


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