Meet the man who makes death masks

Categories: Care, Featured, and People & Places.

Nick Reynolds has created ‘death masks’ for people as diverse as punk icon Malcolm McLaren and Hollywood legend Peter O’Toole, taking casts from them after they’ve died. He also happens to be the son of Bruce Reynolds, the man who masterminded the 1963 Great Train Robbery, and is a member of the band Alabama 3, best known for creating The Sopranos’ theme tune. Here he tells ehospice about making moulds of the dead.

Creating death masks happened quite by chance for Nick. In the mid-90s Britain was experiencing something of a love affair with 60s gangsters, a fact that perplexed him. “When I grew up it was a massive stigma throughout my childhood, having my father in prison” he explains. “I found it really weird that all these people that have been vilified by the media on one hand, were now suddenly being fêted on the celebrity circuit, so I thought I’d explore that paradox by doing an exhibition called Cons to Icons”.

He asked his father Bruce to name the most infamous living criminals that had become a household name in some way so he could sculpt them; he suggested his former mentor George “Taters” Chatham, a man who had been named the “thief of the century”’ for having stolen and subsequently gambled away over £30 million.

However by the time Nick tracked him down he’d died. His sister wasn’t keen on Nick making a cast of the dead man’s head at first, until she visited his body and saw that the once curmudgeonly fellow was smiling, which changed her mind. “I didn’t tell her that what she thought was a smile was actually just gravity from the weight of his cheeks because he was lying down” he says.

That was his first death mask. Years later, after the aristocrat Lord Jago Elliot died, his family were keen to get a death mask made of him. Not knowing who to call, their undertaker tried Madame Tussauds before remembering he’d read an article about Nick travelling to the US to make a cast of an executed prisoner. “When he said they’d rung up and down the country and couldn’t find anybody that still does death masks I realised that there was a niche market there, so I fell into it.”

There is no typical commission he says. “Some people want it done purely because the person was of historical note, and they think it’s tradition. In the golden age of death masks in the 18th century, anybody who was anybody would have a life mask, and if they hadn’t had that done in their lifetime they would definitely get a death mask, it almost became de rigueur” he explains.

The tradition dates back to ancient times; Egyptian pharaohs would be buried with theirs, and later wealthy Romans would keep the death masks of their ancestors on display. In the Middle Ages they were used as memorials for the dead, and they later became status symbols; Beethoven, Abraham Lincoln, Napoleon and Oliver Cromwell all had one.

“You’ve got people who want to believe their loved one is worthy in that respect, they feel it elevates their memory and it’s a great way to give testament to a unique and individual life. Others get done because they were a celebrity. For others it’s because the person was into art so they thought it would be a nice thing for them to have on their headstone.”

Nick’s subjects to date include Malcolm McLaren, film director Ken Russell, actor Peter O’Toole, General Odumegwu Ojukwu, the president of Biafra, journalist Sir William Rees Mogg (father of politician Jacob), and of course his own father.

If pressed, he says maybe Malcolm McLaren would be his favourite, as it was the first to be displayed in a public space. It sits in Highgate Cemetery where it’s become something of a shrine for fans on a punk pilgrimage.

The creative process begins with a visit to the morgue. First Nick covers the face and hair of the dead person with moisturiser so the moulding compound doesn’t stick to their head. Then he uses alginate – what dentists use to create impressions of people’s teeth – to make the cast, together with a plaster covering. Once removed he fills it with wax which he can then sculpt.

Sometimes the odd bit of tweaking is required so they look their best. “In the old days when you did a death mask you got to the person sometimes even before the doctor had issued a death certificate. By the time I get to them they may have been dead for a week. I don’t think people would particularly want an exact copy of what that person is in that state, so I try to make them look like they did right after they died” he says. “You get slight distortions, the cartilage in the nose can shrink a bit, the eyes need a bit of a tweak sometimes.”

“With my latest bronze they asked me to make him look a bit younger and they wanted me to open his eyes because they thought it would look better. That was the first death mask where I’ve had to go beyond [the usual].”

Their appearance will also depend on what they died of and what medication they were on. Depending on what condition they’re in, it can take anything from between a week to several months to create a mask.

It was perhaps destiny that he would end up in a profession that revolved around the concept of death. At the age of eight he found his grandmother dead and had to stay with the body for several hours until his uncle came to take her to hospital. As an adult he was a diver for the Royal Navy during the Falklands war, where he “rescued bits and pieces of my comrades out of the water.”

“I’m quite philosophical about death” he says. “I was in the war, so I’ve been in the zone where you’re absolutely bricking it, you think you’re going to die any minute. When you get that sensation twice a day for six months there’s a point when you almost accept it can happen at any moment. It’s quite strange the moment that you have that acceptance, you definitely change.”

In addition to his work as an artist he plays the harmonica in Alabama 3, who are best known for providing the theme tune to The Sopranos, a show about American gangsters. How much did his father’s life as a felon shape him and career?

“The first thing I got from him is that I don’t want to be a criminal” he says. “I do not want to risk my liberty for any amount of money. But in terms of how it shaped my life, it’s made me a bit of a restless spirit, because I grew up being on the run with my dad, and I had five or six different identities with a different back story should I get separated from my parents.”

It was his father who got him interested in art, even though he was in prison. “He was very good at writing letters to keep in touch, and they were like a little jamboree of bits and bobs to keep me interested. He would draw cartoons and send me postcards from famous artists, and explain what type of art it was and what the artist was trying to say.”

“He sort of trained me really” he adds. “I think he was worried that we wouldn’t have things in common when he came out of prison, so he nurtured certain elements in me that we could talk about and visit. Things he was interested in, I became interested in, and then I went one step further and what I do for a living ended up being music and art, the two things he really wanted to be.”

“My dad was a jazz player, but he found he didn’t have the temperament to learn the sax, and he’d loved to have been an artist, although he did see himself as an artist but one who had landed on the wrong canvas.” (Bruce used to refer to the Great Train Robbery as his own Sistine Chapel ceiling).

Nick finds creating the death masks the most rewarding part of his career. “It’s beyond the satisfaction I get from the other art I do or from music, it seems to be a bit more real” he says. “The reaction you get from other people means you can tell how much your work is appreciated, because you’re giving someone back a part of something that doesn’t exist anymore.”

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