You won’t only find Henry Lawson’s poetry and short stories in a library. His death mask is there too! I stumbled on his death mask during a visit to the State Library of New South Wales on Monday.
Common from the middle ages until the 19th century, death masks are a likeness of a person’s face after their death, usually made by taking a cast or impression from the corpse. James Dean has one. Napoleon, also. Plaster casts of Australia’s worst criminals were made too. Death masks may be mementos of the dead, objects of study, or be used for creation of portraits.
According to the Australian museum, in 19th century Australia, plaster casts of criminals were commonly used in the study of phrenology. Phrenologists divided the head into 35 areas called ‘faculties’. Bumps or depressions in these areas revealed a person’s strengths, weaknesses and motivations. By studying the heads of criminals, phrenologists believed they could prove the existence of a criminal type or class.
Henry Lawson wrote poetry right up to the day he died on 2 September 1922 from a stroke. Soon after his death, sculptor and artist Nelson Illingworth made a plaster cast of Henry Lawson’s face and a bronze cast of his hand. For the past 15 years, those casts have been on display at the State Library of New South Wales.
Henry Lawson wasn’t only a poet. He was a short story writer and balladist. His time in outback western New South Wales influenced some of his work including stories like “The Bush Undertaker” and “The Unions Buries Its Dead”. The latter takes place in Bourke, and concerns the burial of an anonymous union labourer, who had drowned the previous day “while trying to swim some horses across a billabong of the Darling. The narrator, possibly Lawson himself, examines the level of respect the Bushfolk have for the dead.”
You can see Henry Lawson’s death mask for yourself at an awesome collection of thousands of bits and pieces of Australian history at the State Library. Look for Denise Drysdale’s Logie and the mask is just below it. I kid you not.