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Changing face: masks from the British Museum
Death mask of George Bernard Shaw
George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950), who was born in Dublin but lived most of his life in England, is considered one of Britain's greatest dramatists. His plays are still widely read and performed all over the world. This mask was made on the grounds that Shaw's international fame was so great that it would have enormous value for posterity.
Death and life masks are both made in the same way. The head and facial hair are oiled and a thin layer of plaster is applied to the face in several layers. Threads are set into this and when the plaster has set the mask is removed in several pieces by pulling the threads. The pieces are then put back together to form a mould from which a mask can be made. Death masks can also be made by moulding wax over the face. A death mask must be made as soon as possible after death, before the features have fallen.
Sculptors sometimes used death masks in making portraits. Joseph Nollekens RA (1737-1823), for example, used a mask of Charles Townley (1753-1805), a great collector of classical sculptures, for a marble bust that is now in the British Museum.
Shaw's mask came to the British Museum, which was beneficiary of the Shaw Estate, twenty-seven years after his death. There are two later casts of this mask in the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, London, and in the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin.