Alfred George Stevens
Plaster with brown patination
Height: 14 3/4'' (37.4 cm)
Produced in 1875
Private English collection
This portrait of Alfred Stevens is one of only two known plaster casts produced of the artist’s death mask. It was made by Steven’s pupil and studio assistant, Reuben Townroe, immediately after his death on 1 May 1875.
The National Portrait Gallery acquired the other plaster version of the piece from Townroe in 1905. While the present example is covered with a deep, earth-toned patina, which captures the shade and reflects the light of the plaster, the Museum’s version is devoid of patination.
In the history of art, death masks represented a vehicle for the accurate reproduction of likenesses of important individuals before the advent of photography. In some cases, such objects played a key role in developing the ‘cult’ status of certain individuals after their passing – as was the case with Napoleon.
Reworking the original wax or plaster mould with which the mask was made, Townroe added part of the figure’s hairlocks, also producing a lobed, oval frame surrounding Stevens’ features. In doing so, Townroe turns a traditional death mask into a sculptural relief.
The plaster was acquired by the sculptor Albert Toft (1862-1949), perhaps in recognition of Stevens’ role of ‘prime mover’ for the development of the New Sculpture movement. Toft then left the piece to his assistant, the sculptor Patrick Synge-Hutchinson (1910-1998).