Macabre but Fascinating
Guess whose face (above) this is? If you said Abe Lincoln, you’d be correct, and it’s one of 60 life and death masks in the collection of Laurence Hutton, the literary editor of Harper’s magazine from 1886 to 1898, and donated to the Princeton University Libraries. “Hutton traveled around the world to collect these plaster casts, looking in obscure curiosity shops and major museums, where many curators granted Hutton permission to have copies made from their masks,” explains the museum blog.
“The collection began almost by accident while shopping in New York City. Hutton was interrupted by a ragged boy trying to sell a cast of a human face, unquestionably that of Benjamin Franklin (below). He purchased it for two shillings and offered another quarter if the boy showed him where he found it. In a couple of ash-barrels on Second Street were dozens of casts of Washington, Sheridan, Cromwell, and many others, which Hutton carted home.” The rest, including the death mask of Sir Issac Newton (bottom), can be seen here. And while somewhat macabre, they are indeed quite fascinating.
About Steven Heller
Steven Heller is the co-chair of the SVA MFA Designer /Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program, writes frequently for Wired and Design Observer. He is also the author of over 170 books on design and visual culture. He received the 1999 AIGA Medal and is the 2011 recipient of the Smithsonian National Design Award.