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The Nelson Masks

THE FACE OF A HERO FROZEN IN TIME

There are three Nelson masks in existence:

The Queen Mary mask.

This was it was found by Queen Mary, the wife of King George V, in an antique shop on the Isle of Wight. It shows Nelson with his eyes closed. It is held at the RNM

The Nelson-Weekes mask

This is owned by the Weekes family, who are descendants of Nelson’s daughter Horatia. It is also held at the RNM.

The Nelson-Ward mask.

This shows Nelson with his eyes open and is held at the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich.

The Queen Mary mask is thought to be the most life like since Nelson’s eyes are closed. This indicates that it was an original mould of Nelson’s face, that was taken in Vienna on his way home from the Mediterranean in 1800. The Nelson-Ward mask has the eyes open and is a version touched up in the studio shortly afterwards. This would make it not so accurate as the other one. The Nelson-Weekes mask was a cast from a marble bust.

During the early nineteenth century, life masks were a very fashionable style of portraiture. To make a life mask, the subject was strapped into a tilted chair with their eyes closed. Straws were placed in each nostril to enable the model to breathe whilst wet plaster was moulded over the face. The subject had to stay completely still until the plaster had set and then the mould was removed. As the moulds were taken of Nelson when he was alive, they provide an accurate impression on his face and can help us to decide what Nelson actually looked like. Portraits are often inaccurate due to the subjectivity of the artist.

The masks were originally believed to be death masks taken from Nelson’s face two months after the battle of Trafalgar when HMS Victory arrived in Portsmouth in December 1805. There are no records to confirm this and research by morticians have proved that Nelson’s face would have been too decomposed for such a mould to be taken.

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©Royal Naval Museum Library, 2000 

The information contained in this information sheet is correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the library for a bibliography of further reading materials, if available