Dead hand talking

William Thackeray’s hand in The Human Touch exhibition contains tantalising clues to the trade secrets of master Victorian plaster-cast maker Domenico Brucciani.

I will admit it up front: I have been making casts of hands and faces from myself and family members on and off since I was a young teenager; so I was particularly intrigued by the cast of William Makepeace Thackeray’s hand (Museum number M.5-1944) which I recently conserved for the exhibition ‘The Human Touch: making art, leaving traces’  (open from 18th May to 1st August 2021). 

The mould for Thackeray’s hand was made on Christmas Day 1863.  Thackeray had died suddenly the day before, aged just 52.  His doctor and friend Sir Henry Thompson was called to confirm the death, and it was he who also sent for the famous and highly respected cast-maker, Domenico Brucciani, to make casts of Thackeray’s face and right hand.  The National Portrait Gallery has copies of both.

William Makepeace Thackeray by Domenico Brucciani Plaster casts
William Makepeace Thackeray by Domenico Brucciani Plaster casts of death-mask and right hand NPG 1501 © National Portrait Gallery, London

The only other known copy of the hand is the one in the Fitzwilliam Museum, which was given to us in 1944 by Henry Thompson’s son, Herbert.  It came with a note written by Henry, which says ‘It is characteristic, recalling for me the original with its long and delicate fingers, the form of the nails &c, very forcibly’. 

The cast hand has its own special red leather case, similar to a jewellery case but somewhat resembling a very small coffin.

The cast of Thackeray’s hand in its original red leather case
The cast of Thackeray’s hand in its original red leather case

So why did Thompson commission casts of Thackeray’s head and hand?  Although death-masks have been made for many centuries in different cultures, they were particularly popular in Victorian times.  Before photography was widely available, they served as an affordable memento of a loved one who had died.  They were also made fashionable by the pseudo-science of phrenology, which suggested that a person’s character was evident from the shape of their skull.  This stimulated demand for copies of the cast heads of famous individuals, whether they were the great and good or heinous criminals.  Thackeray was ranked second only to Dickens in his own time, and there would surely have been public interest in his death-mask.  But his family very much opposed making the mask and hand widely available and insisted that Brucciani should not make any further copies of them, so in this case they were made purely as personal mementoes.

Taking a cast from a person’s head is quite an undertaking.  A few years ago, my daughter very sportingly allowed her parents to cast her face.  After generously applying Vaseline so that her eyelashes, eyebrows and downy hair would not be pulled out in the process, we made a mould using alginate powder, which is a rubbery casting compound:

Making a mould of a face
Making an alginate mould of my daughter’s face.

The pink blobs are the alginate mixture and the two cones are paper tubes which my daughter inserted up her nostrils so she could breathe during the few minutes it took for the alginate to harden enough to be removed.  This is the aspect of the process which sometimes makes people panic and pull off the mould before it solidifies: it can be pretty stressful to have to stay absolutely still and breathe only through straws up your nose while someone piles the moulding material onto your face! 

Casting the head of a real person is clearly quite invasive, whether the subject is dead or alive, and not everyone was willing to submit their very recently deceased loved one to the process.  Luigi Finili, who was at one time Brucciani’s chief moulder, said in an interview with the Pall Mall Gazette in 1892: ‘Many people prefer to have a model of their dead friend’s hand instead of the face.  They do not care to let anyone touch the face, but they do not seem to mind so much about the hand.’ Even when a death mask was made, it was often disappointing.  Jack C. Rich in his classic work, The Materials and Methods of Sculpture (1947) explained that ‘There is a tendency of the facial tissues to sag with gravitational pull when the subject is in a horizontal position.  This phenomenon is particularly marked with older and more obese persons.’

Even when a cast is made from an upright model this can still be a problem – the mask we made from my young daughter was also quite distorted by the pressure of the moulding material on her face.  A cast from life may also fail to resemble the subject because it lacks colour and expression, while features like hair and spectacles which contribute strongly to many people’s appearance are hard to reproduce in a plaster cast.  Comparing the death- mask of Thackeray with even a very static-looking photograph of him from 1855 gives an idea of the problem. 

Daguerreotype photograph of William Makepeace
Daguerreotype photograph of William Makepeace Thackeray by Jesse Harrison Whitehurst (1819-1875), digitised by Boston Public Library 2007. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

‘By some mischance the [face] was not agreeable, [with] none of the charm of expression so attractive in life & it was rejected.  But the hand is a portrait and recalls to me very strongly the character of the original.’

When looking in detail at the cast of the hand, it is clear that it was made by a very skilled craftsman.  The plaster is fine and there are no air bubbles visible at all.  This can be very hard for an amateur like me to achieve.  The detail on the surface is very clear, with the grain of the skin visible in places when the hand is viewed under the microscope.  Small losses from the surface reveal more about the technique Brucciani used to achieve this fine detail.  He seems to have poured a very fine plaster mix into the mould first to get a thin ‘skin’ layer, allowing this to set partially and then filling the rest of the mould with a coarser plaster mix.

Brucciani’s skill at finishing the cast also makes it hard to tell if the mould was made in sections or cast in a soft mould.  A clenched human hand has a number of ‘undercuts’ which would make it impossible to remove from a hard plaster mould made in a single piece – it would need to be made in sections.  The traditional method of doing this involves using a fine wire or waxed thread to split the mould around the hand.  This technique is tricky to master because it relies on expert timing.  Threads are laid on the surface of the hand in the places where splits in the mould are needed.  They are then pulled out at exactly the right moment while the plaster is setting, to split the mould so it can be removed in sections.  If the thread is pulled too soon the soft plaster flows around the place where it was and re-joins the sections of the mould; if it is left too late, the thread may break when it is pulled or even be unable to split the hardened plaster.

The alternative to this hard plaster mould method is to use a soft moulding technique, similar to the alginate we used for my daughter’s face mould.  Alginate was not available in 1863, but soft moulds made from gelatine had recently been invented.  It is sometimes said that this technique was invented around 1865, when it was used by another well-known cast-maker, Giovanni Franchi, to cast Pisano’s 14th-century marble pulpit in Pisa Cathedral for the famous V&A cast collection.  But Brucciani was already using the technique in 1861, when he got into trouble with the British Museum for allegedly staining a Classical mausoleum while casting it using gelatine.  He was actually banned from using the process at the British Museum again without express permission from the Museum’s Trustees – but of course he was still free to use it in projects for other clients.

Gelatine moulds were suitable for making both small and large casts and had the advantage that the final result would not have the seam lines that you get when casting from hard moulds made in sections.  Brucciani’s skill was such that it is not easy to tell whether there were seams on Thackeray’s hand that have been removed; but the stumps of two iron pins in the wrist may provide a clue.

Brucciani’s signature
The pins are visible as two brown dots at the end of the wrist, under Brucciani’s signature.

Plaster heats up quite a lot as it sets.  When using a gelatine mould it is important to remove the cast as soon as the plaster is firm enough so that this heat doesn’t melt the gelatine, or the mould cannot be reused.  The iron pins may be the remains of a hook used to help pull the cast out of the soft mould quickly.  Once the cast was removed, the hook could be snipped off as it would no longer be needed. 

Spending time with the cast of Thackeray’s hand has made me wonder about the maker, Domenico Brucciani.  He came to England from Italy around 1829, when he was just 15, and joined his uncle’s plaster-cast business in Covent Garden.  He stayed in England until his death in 1880.  Unlike most Italian itinerant ‘image-sellers’ at the time, he built a very successful business known for quality, riding a wave of democratization of art, both for people’s homes but also for the great museums and art schools of his day.  He headed a large firm which was responsible for many casts in the V&A, British Museum and Royal Academy, and exhibited his work at the Great Exhibition of 1851 and the International Exhibition of 1862. 

A fascinating recent book by Rebecca Wade, Domenico Brucciani and the formatori of 19th Century Britain (2018) discusses his career and the plaster-casting industry in depth, and yet, despite his renown, Brucciani remains a rather shadowy figure.  A short obituary published in The Builder in April 1880 said ‘although chiefly a plasterman in calling, he was an artist at heart’.  The beautifully made death-hand of Thackeray bears witness not only to the famous writer, but also to the craftsman who made it.

‘The Human Touch: making art, leaving traces’  is open from 18th May to 1st August 2021, and tickets are available to book online

Flipping Admiral Russell’s Frame: how and why Fitz conservators turned a baroque masterpiece upside-down

This magnificent carved and gilded frame was the Fitzwilliam Museum’s birthday present to itself in 2016, when the Museum celebrated its 200th anniversary.  It was acquired with generous support from the Friends of the Fitzwilliam, as well as the V&A Purchase Grant Fund, Henry Moore Foundation, Finnis Scott Foundation, Old Possum’s Practical Trust and private individuals.  It is a fantastic example of a baroque trophy frame, made for Admiral Edward Russell in the 1690s.  The image shows what the public sees in the gallery, but conservators need to examine every nook and cranny during conservation treatment.  It can be quite a challenge to access all areas with an object as fragile and heavy as this frame, so we had to be creative to solve the problem.

Admiral Russell’s Frame
M.2-2017 Admiral Russell’s Frame

The frame is made from carved and gilded lime wood, and is highly elaborate and dramatic, with figures of Hercules on the left and Mercury on the right.  The bottom of the frame shows the winged figure of Fame with two trumpets, one for good publicity and one for bad.  The top is decorated with Tritons (demi-gods of the sea), and realistic seashells rising out of the waves, as well as two cherubs, all surrounding Russell’s coat of arms.  Other details such as shields, helmets and the prow of a ship all show that this was a military trophy frame made to celebrate Admiral Russell’s naval victories against the French in 1692.   There is much more information about the frame and its makers in this short film, and an excellent account of how trophy frames arose out of the ancient practice of taking military trophies from the field of battle in this 2019 blog by Lynn Roberts, a picture frame historian.

The frame was put on display as soon as it came to the Museum, because the public and benefactors who helped acquire it were keen to see it without delay.  There was no time to conserve it in 2016, but recently we had a chance to examine and treat it, ready for a move to Gallery III.

From the start, we knew that conserving this object would be a challenge.  The splendid carving is actually very fragile and worm-eaten, but the whole frame including the mirror is also extremely heavy, weighing around 70kg.  Just moving it safely is tricky, let alone getting access to all sides for conservation treatment.  How could we turn it over to look at the back without the frame collapsing or crushing itself under its own weight?

We started by working on the front to make it completely secure before turning the frame over.  Lily Griffin, who is on a work placement with us for 10 months as part of her conservation MSc course at University College London, worked on the frame with me, and together we cleaned the gilded surface.

Conservator cleaning frame
Lily Griffin cleaning Admiral Russell’s Frame

The gilding is only microns thick and the adhesive attaching it is very sensitive to water, so after vacuuming the surface we swabbed the gilded areas with white spirit.  There was a lot of tarry dirt in the crevices of the carving, which probably comes from fireplaces, candles and tobacco being smoked near the frame where it hung, first in Admiral Russell’s home at Chippenham Park, and then with subsequent owners.  We were careful not to over-clean, but even so, we collected copious numbers of filthy swabs.

Dirty swabs they produced when cleaning an object
Conservators enjoy looking at all the dirty swabs they produced when cleaning an object, and this was a particularly satisfying quantity!

Unfortunately Mercury’s legs have lost most of their gilding and also the gesso layer underneath, leaving bare lime wood exposed.  This might be due to someone attempting to clean the frame with water and having the surface dissolve in front of them.  This would have been very stressful to watch if it wasn’t intentional, and the thought of it reminds me of Mr Bean destroying the portrait of Whistler’s mother – my favourite ‘conservation disaster’ video of all time.  It is possible that someone intended to strip the whole frame and re-gild it, but if so they clearly thought better of it.

As you might expect from an object over 300 years old, there was quite a lot of old damage, ranging from small knocks and chips to a whole section of the lower left corner which seems to have been dropped at some stage and has extensive repairs.  Lily and I spent time securing worm-eaten wood and loose gilding, making small repairs and retouching the most obtrusive old losses so that they would not distract the eye. Once all this was done, it was time to turn the frame over and work on the reverse.

Flipping fragile objects over to work on the back is something of a ‘signature technique’ for me, having done it for an Egyptian cartonnage coffin and a cartonnage mask, both on display at the Museum.  But this frame was much, much heavier than those objects and I was pretty nervous about it.  Luckily, we have a superb team of conservation technicians at the Fitz, all of whom have experience with large, heavy and delicate objects, and all of whom were very helpful in lending both their brains and their muscles to make sure this job went without a hitch.

Firstly, we ordered a transport crate for the frame, of the kind typically used to pack  paintings travelling on loan.  This can be used in future as a storage crate if needed.  Our carpenter then expertly modified the crate with some extra panels to make it work for the unusual proportions of the object.

We placed the frame in the bottom of the crate and then packed it out with blue vacuum bags.

Frame in the crate
The frame in the base of the crate, just before packing the blue vacuum bags around it

These soft bags are filled with tiny beads and have a valve that lets you extract the air in a controlled way until the bag becomes rigid.  Using four large bags, we covered all of the carved areas and manipulated the soft padding so it filled the gaps and conformed closely to the shape of the frame.  When the air was extracted using hand pumps the blue bags solidified to make a completely tailored rigid support for the carving.

frame completely covered and supported by the blue vacuum bags
The sides and front of the frame completely covered and supported by the blue vacuum bags

Next, we packed out the rest of the crate with foam and bubble-wrap to fill the space inside completely, and lastly put a sheet of chipboard over the top.  The whole lot was secured with gaffer tape: it couldn’t be screwed closed because that would stop us lifting the crate off after turning it over.  By now the whole assemblage weighed about 100kg.

The crate packed, closed and ready for turning
The crate packed, closed and ready for turning

Then for the moment of truth: eight of us lifted the crate and turned it over, replacing it on the table.

Staff flipping the crate
The first 90 degrees of the flip….
Staff flipping the crate
…And over it goes!

The gaffer tape was removed and the transport crate lifted away to reveal the back of the frame.

Lifting off the crate from the frame
Lifting off the crate for the moment of truth
Staff seeing the back of the frame for the first time
Seeing the back of the frame for the first time, and sighs of relief all round that everything went well

From the back you can clearly see that the frame is made from just a few large timbers, which would originally have been a similar size to railway sleepers.  The skill needed to create this object is impressive.  It may have been made by the carvers who were permanently employed at the Royal Dockyards in the 1690s, or perhaps by a freelance craftsman working near Chippenham Park, Admiral Russell’s home in Cambridgeshire.  If you want to know more about the possible makers, there is a blog by former Fitzwilliam Museum Director Tim Knox which discusses this in more detail.

Happily we found that the back of the frame was in surprisingly good condition and did not need any treatment apart from cleaning.  We took the opportunity to make sure the mirror was secure in its housing and also replaced the heavy modern oak backing board with something lighter to make the frame easier to handle.  Trying to reuse the old screw holes as much as possible to avoid new damage to the original wood, we used three smaller pine boards to brace the back.  They were covered in aluminium-backed tape to stop acidic gases in the pine from coming out and affecting the frame or other objects in the stores and galleries.  The mounting bars for hanging the frame were also attached to the new bracing boards.

Once conservation was complete, the frame was secured in the transport crate and wheeled to Gallery III. 

Staff moving the crate through the galleries
Admiral Russell’s Frame travelling smoothly in its crate through the galleries, on the way to its new home

The conservation technicians masterminded the delicate process of hanging the frame on the wall, using a stacker to lift it into place.

Placing the frame on the stacker
Placing the frame on the stacker which lifted it into position
Staff positioning the frame precisely on the wall
Positioning the frame precisely on the wall. The blue tape marks show exactly where it need to hang
Technician fixing final screw in frame
Tightening the final screw

The frame looks great against the deep aubergine-coloured walls and can definitely hold its own against its new, equally flamboyant neighbour, the portrait of the Countess of Southampton as ‘Fortune’ by Anthony Van Dyck!

Like all the best projects, this has been a team effort involving not just conservation technicians and conservators, but staff in Facilities, Finance, the registrars and of course curators.  A particularly big thank you goes to the Antiquities Department who let us borrow their Seminar Room so we could do the conservation work in a COVID-safe fashion.  Everyone has been very generous with their time, often dropping everything to lend a hand and always being unfailingly good-natured.  It has been a huge pleasure to work on this together.