THE TIMES

Visual Arts

Sebastian Horsley, the death mask and me

The death mask of Sebastian Horsley
Peter Nicholls for The Times
The death mask of Sebastian Horsley

After the death of the artist, his friend and former lover was sent an inspiring but unsettling memento

Would you like a death mask? The question came as I was tightrope walking my way across that void which is left by the death of someone you love. Funeral arrangements had, up till then, been keeping me more or less balanced, but this was a question to cause a momentary wobble.

The face is a uniquely powerful expression of self and, as a forthcoming television programme How to Get a Head in Sculpture will explore, something complex happens when you try to capture it. The sculpted head — whether celebrating the living or commemorating the dead — conveys more than the merely literal. It speaks not just of who we are but of how we want to be seen and of how others perceive us. “Are we to paint what’s on the face, what’s inside it or what’s behind it?” asked the constantly questing Picasso. We don’t just look for the skull beneath, but for the spirit beyond the skin.

I first met Sebastian Horsley, an artist and dandy of super-plastic profundity with an invincible determination to stare truth down and still laugh, about 20 years ago. It was in a restaurant. He sent a bottle of Dom Perignon over to my table and from that moment on our lives would be linked, for ten years as lovers and latterly (to use his favourite cliché) as soul mates. For two decades we spoke to each other daily; not a plan to be hatched, not a failure to be mourned, not an idea to be discovered without its being discussed. And then he died in the summer.

The last time I saw his face, eyes bright as a child’s amid crumbling make-up, was on a hot night in June. A play based on his autobiography had just opened in the West End and afterwards we had accompanied his mother, who was dying of cancer, to a car. Lifted out of her wheelchair, she had felt frail and breakable as a songbird in winter and, turning instinctively to one another, we had cried in each other’s arms in a dark Soho street. Then voices had come calling from outside the theatre. People were impatient for the after-show party. I wiped the smudges of mascara from Sebastian’s cheeks before packing him off to put on his trademark top hat and his air of laughing defiance. It was the last thing I ever did for him. Later that night he went home and took a heroin overdose.

A death mask, suggests Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, in an interview given for the BBC programme, has a haunting fascination because it captures the final form of the human face. “There is a kind of completion about it,” he says, “and whatever may have been going on — even in a painful or difficult death — what you then have is what’s left; the sum total of all those experiences just held for a moment and the death mask then captures that moment.”

For centuries, when a famous or significant figure — Dante, Pascal, Newton, Nietzsche, Napoleon, Blake or Keats — passed away, an imprint of their face was quickly taken before its features started to fall: a precise record of how they looked from which subsequent copies could be cast. These mementos, often widely distributed through public and private collections, were used as models for posthumous portraits or, particularly in the case of notorious criminals, as phrenological specimens to be prodded and probed.

But such images were more than just 3-D documents. They accrued a symbolic power. During the French Revolution, the mob’s hatred could not be sated by the guillotine’s slice. It needed effigies to quench its bloodthirsty feelings and it was then that Marie Grosholtz, otherwise known as Marie Tussaud, found herself casting the faces of the Terror’s most famous victims, Marie Antoinette, Robespierre and Marat among them.

In our modern era, however, the camera has replaced the sculptor. “Photography,” as Roland Barthes put it, “is the place where death went when religion let it go.” And though the skull remains ubiquitous in art, this grinning memento mori has a clinical finality. Effacing all traces of the individual, it reduces all human life to the same bony rictus. It feels like a full stop.

The death mask is more disconcerting. Perhaps one never sees more clearly exactly what life is until one can see it subtracted, until one can see what is not. The death mask reveals this. Even as it preserves the last vestiges of living character, it prints them upon a carapace that has been vacated. The presence of absence is exposed and in its bewildering spaces a sudden and acute sense of what a life amounted to wells up.

Nowadays, only a handful of craftsmen continue a practice that in its long history has encompassed anything from the gilded perfection of the mummified pharaoh to the warts- and-all reality of a wax Oliver Cromwell. Nick Reynolds, who features in the forthcoming BBC programme at work upon his death mask of Sebastian, is one of these. “I think it’s rather fitting that a dandy like he was should have himself immortalised in this timeless fashion. I think he would almost have thought it was worth dying for,” he says.

He is probably right. Sebastian detested what he called “the obedience of grief”; he would not have wanted decorous convention to have intruded upon his own non-existence. A man who would waltz about Soho in toe-to-crown velvet, “a futile blast of colour in a futile colourless world”, saw his dandified style not as a mere accoutrement of character but as a “condition”; “a defence against suffering and a celebration of life”. It was “a shield and a sword and crown — all pulled out of the dressing up box of the imagination”, he said; “a lie which reveals the truth and the truth is that we are what we pretend to be”. A man who spent all his life “hiding in full view” understood instinctively the complex role of the mask.

Dying before he hit 50 — “often the best career move an artist can make”, he had said — he would have loved to have been fêted like “L’Inconnue de la Seine”. She was an unidentified young woman who, drowning in the late 19th century, seemed to a Parisian morgue worker so beautiful that he paid for a death mask to be made of her face. Copies of it became a fixture in the fashionable salons of that era.

But the death mask, Reynolds believes, is also a potent cathartic tool. Sebastian’s was delivered to me in an old shoe box and for several weeks it remained unopened. Incapable of looking, I kept it in a cupboard, a bit like some caged animal — a not unfitting analogy for a companion who, through years of addiction, had felt more like a pet gerbil than a boyfriend as he had huddled away in a corner scrabbling about with his paraphernalia.

To finally open it, to see the face that I had so often watched sleeping, the face that I had lifted a funeral shroud to kiss was unbearable. It brought hopeless tears. I felt desperately protective. I still couldn’t bear to let a stranger touch it. And yet this object which preserves the physical lineaments of someone so precious preserves also at the same time precisely nothing at all. It doesn’t bring me back to Sebastian, it leads me away.

“No one owns life,” said William Burroughs, “but anyone who can pick up a frying pan owns death.” The corpse is heartbreaking in its banality. But the death mask belongs to that limbo land between the animate being and its inert mass. It is less a face than an interface. It opens a pair of doors, leads you away from the living presence and into that long corridor that carries you towards the land of the afterlife perhaps. What will I do with it? I still don’t know. For a while I might talk to it. I will certainly cry a lot. But, in the end, it is only an object. Anything that consoles is fake, Sebastian always insisted. All our most precious things are just junk that has not broken yet.

How to get a Head in Sculpture, directed by Adrian Sibley, will be broadcast on BBC Four at 9pm on October 28

How to make a death mask

Nick Reynolds made Sebastian Horsley’s death mask. The son of Bruce Reynolds, one of the Great Train Robbers, he joined the Royal Navy when his father was finally caught and jailed in 1968. He was a diver in the Falklands war and then worked in naval intelligence. In the mid-1980s he left to become a musician (with the Alabama 3) and sculptor. He has made death masks for George Chatham, the “thief of the century”; Lord Jago Eliot; and John Joe Amador, who was executed by lethal injection in Texas. To make a mask, alginate — a seaweed-based material that dentists use for moulding teeth — is smeared over the face. This produces a soft mould that must be reinforced with plaster bandages before removal. Plaster or wax is then poured into this negative. When it has hardened, imperfections are cleaned up and a silicone rubber mould is taken from which a bonded marble, bronze or polyurethane resin effigy may be made.

Traditionally the bandages tied around the head to keep the jaw closed (nowadays they use clamp the mandibles with superglue) would have been the demarcation of the mask. It looks more beautiful that way, Reynolds says, because gravity pulls the jowls down in a way that can look macabre.

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