Edmund Kean's death mask
Plaster painted a terracotta colour; mounted on a plaster plinth
British Theatre Museum opening exhibition, 18th June 1963 at Leighton House, Kensington
since 2000 the mask has formed the centre-piece of the Theatre Museum's display on the "Life and Work of Edmund Kean"
"Theatre Notebook" Vol. 18 Winter 1963/64 p49
Nothing is known of the provenance of this mask. Philip Ormond noticed it on display in the Theatre Museum captioned simply as being on loan from the Garrick Club. A handwritten caption which the Museum had preserved identified it as having been lent to the British Theatre Museum Association (BTMA) for an exhibition in 1963. It was passed on to the Theatre Museum when that organisation subsequently inherited all the BTMA's collections. This is confirmed by the article in "Theatre Notebook" referred to above.
Edmund Kean had collapsed on the stage at Covent Garden during the second act of “Othello” on Monday 25th March 1833. He had been playing the moor to his son Charles’s Iago and Ellen Tree’s Desdemona. He was carried to the nearby Wrekin Tavern and was put to bed. The following Saturday he returned to his home in Richmond, but his condition steadily worsened, and he died on Wednesday 15th May. His death is described in F W Hawkins “The Life of Edmund Kean” London 1869 (pp391-392):
“For several hours before his death Kean was quite insensible; but even in his unconscious his thoughts were with his acting. ‘Farewell, Flo- Floranthe,’ he murmured at one time, giving a passage from the character of Octavian with affecting sweetness and pathos; ‘Give me another horse!’ he cried at another, half rising in his bed with delirious excitement; ‘Howard,’ he whispered tenderly at another. Shortly before twelve o’clock on the morning of the 14th of May his principal medical attendant, Mr Douchez, who had postponed several consultations in town in order that he might give his undivided attention to the dying actor, found that his unconscious had become greater; and towards the evening a large accumulation of mucus taking place in the bronchiæ (better known as the rattles) gave evident signs of speedy dissolution. He continued in this state during nearly the whole of the night, occasionally murmuring religious interjections, or some scrap from the characters he had represented so well. At five o’clock on the following morning he appeared to recognise Mr Douchez and Mr Lee, his attached and faithfull secretary, for he feebly extended his hand, grasped that of the former, and threw a look of unspeakable affection and gratefulness upon them. Later in the morning an attempt was made to pass something through his lips, but in vain; he essayed to speak, but the power of articulation had gone for ever; and at twenty minutes past nine on the morning of 15th May, 1833, still holding the hand of Mr Douchez, he fixed his eyes on him and Mr Lee steadily for one moment, heaved a deep sigh, and tranquilly expired.”
The artist Robert Cruickshank immortalised the moment of Kean’s death in the presence of John Lee and Dr George Douchez in his lithograph produced shortly after. [see Harvard Theatrical Print Catalogue Vol II p361 No.266]
Two days after the death and in obeyance with the frequently expressed wishes of the deceased, a post-mortem was carried out by Dr Douchez and his colleagues James Smith and J C Carpue, with John Lee again in attendance. Part of this involved “dissecting the scalp from the cranium”, which would suggest that the death-mask would already have been produced by this time. It most likely would have been organised by John Lee, who had been responsible for removing a lock of Kean’s hair just two hours after the death, and preserving it for posterity [see “Lock of Edmund Kean’s hair” M0123] It most likely would have been undertaken by Dr Douchez himself, or perhaps by the Richmond undertaker Mr Piggot, who was responsible for the funeral arrangements when Kean was interred at the Old Church, Richmond on 25th May.
It is notable that Edmund Kean was known to have been an extremely heavy drinker, and this, combined with his hard-working nature, certainly led to his untimely death at only 47. The report from his post-mortem does not make for very pleasant reading. “Heart excessively loaded with fat, flabby, empty of blood… The l