Books and a death mask: it’s funny what you find in the library.

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.

Henry Lawson’s death mask is on display at the NSW State Library. Go figure.

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.

Henry Lawson’s death mask is almost 100 years old.

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.

I stumbled across Henry Lawson's death mask during a visit to the library.
Henry Lawson’s right hand,

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.

There’s an amazing array of Australian history on display at the State Library of NSW.

About the author

Author Lisa Herbert

Lisa Herbert is a death awareness advocate, a cemetery wanderer, journalist and audio producer, and author of The Bottom Drawer Book: the after death action plan – an informative, modern, and quirky workbook and funeral planning guide for those who want to prepare for the inevitable. The third edition is available in Australia for $29.95.  For international buyers, The Bottom Drawer eBook is AU$11.99 on Amazon, Apple Books, Kobo, Booktopia and Google Books. To purchase, click HERE.

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