“Then completely paranoid, I had to drive for two hours to another morgue with him on the back seat.”
Above: Nick casting John Jo Amador & the cast of Nick's father Bruce Reynolds.
The son of the late Bruce Reynolds, mastermind behind the Great Train Robbery, Nick Reynolds spent his early childhood on the run with his Dad in Mexico. Sent to boarding school aged 7 when his father was eventually arrested, Reynolds would go on to join the Royal Navy as a diver and electronic weapons engineer, serving during the Falklands conflict, before working at Whitehall Naval Intelligence, diving with the Police Underwater Search Unit.
Alongside his work as a musician (Nick is the Harmonica player for Alabama 3, those of the Soprano’s theme fame), he became interested in sculpture in his 30’s, going on to create a name for himself as the UK’s foremost Death Mask artist. His familial link to the criminal underworld saw him produce a number of life and death masks of some of Britain’s most notorious criminals for his 1999 exhibition “Cons to Icons”.
Through his unique company Memorial Casts, he has created Death Masks for many public figures, including director Ken Russell, Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren, actor Peter O'Toole and his father Bruce Reynolds, the man he credits with laying the foundations of his interest in the arts.
The Terrestrial spoke to Nick Reynolds about his unique life journey, his motivations, processes and experiences in his ongoing work in creating Death Masks.
Interviewed by Marcus Lawry.
TT: Tell us a little of your background in sculpture? I have read various things about your childhood, during which I understand you spent some time on the run with your father. How did you transition from this part of your life in to becoming a sculptor, or was it something you already had an interest in as a child?
NR: I never had any formal art training other than the usual school curriculum, but my father was interested in art and he took me to many Mayan and Aztec sites whilst we were living (on the run) in Mexico. I think the unique and incredibly complex stone carvings made an enormous impression on me, and being only 3-6 years old in the early sixties, I had seen nothing like it before. This fascination developed beyond strange stone figures as my father maintained his interest in art and mine by sending me “art” packs from prison. These would comprise of postcards from famous artists that interested him, from the renaissance, to impressionism to surrealism to pop art. He would explain the images on the cards and what it meant as well as personal details about the artist and what they were trying to say.
This became the foundation for what was originally just an art hobby and fun way of expressing myself, which then changed when I met the sculptor John Somerville in my 30’s. His work blew me away and I wanted to be able to do what he did. Some of his work resonated with death masks I had seen of Oliver Cromwell and Napoleon in my teens that had also left a profound and lasting impression (no pun intended!) So he took me under his wing - I guess it’s mainly his fault with a lot of foundation from my father.
TT: What was the first Death Mask that you created, and how did the opportunity arise?
NR: The first death mask I made was of a man named George “Taters” Chatham, dubbed the ‘thief of the century’ by the Guardian, who at one point had been my father’s criminal mentor. The opportunity came about as I was compiling a list of the UK’s most infamous living criminals (around 1994) that I wanted to take life masks from, for a show entitled “Cons to Icons.”
I thought this process as, analogous to fingerprinting, or rather whole facial ‘fingerprinting’, furthering on a tradition where criminals were once cast dead or alive, under the guise of the pseudo science, phrenology - which claimed criminal traits could be detected by the subjects skull, physiognomy and various bumps.
Basically I guess I was trying to produce a collection of masks, like Scotland Yard had in its infamous “Black Museum” but reproduced in a more iconic/artistic way. Chatham was top of my list but when I tracked him down he had just died; however I managed to persuade his sister to let me go ahead, as when she viewed the corpse she thought he was smiling, and saw this as a sign he made his peace with God and therefore was happy for me to do it. I didn't tell her actually it was gravity, the fact he was lying down and that his weighty jowls had provided the expression.
TT: How did you approach the task; did you have any experiences to draw on or was there any guidance available? Were you nervous?
NR: Although I had never cast a dead person before, I figured it had to be easier than a living subject; for starters you don’t have the worry of suffocating them, like I nearly did with ‘Mad’ Frankie Fraser! Having been a diver in the Royal Navy during the Falklands and also having dived with the Police (when I worked for Naval Intelligence Whitehall) I was okay with corpses but I took my sculptor mentor John Somerville along just in case!
TT: How did your work creating Death Masks develop from there, to where you are now with Memorial Masks?
NR: After the ‘Cons to Icons’ show in 1999, I was co–running an arts club in Clerkenwell called the Tardis (quite notorious in its day!) and part living in Tobago, where I was trying to assemble a collection of the Island’s greatest heroes, from musicians to sportsmen.
At that point I was more interested in the living than the dead until I got a call from an undertaker explaining that a friend of mine, Lord Jago Eliot had died, and the family wanted a death mask. He explained he had scoured the internet for anyone able to do this, including Madame Tussauds without any joy. He then explained he had come across my name in relation to the death mask of George Chatham - the fact I knew Jago was a complete coincidence! So it was from then on, I became aware that death masks had become a lost art form with nobody doing them anymore….well they say nature abhors a vacuum, I just got sucked in!
Above: Peter O'Toole & 'Bruce Reynolds: Dreaming of Eldorado'
TT: Tell us about your process, the intricacies of creating the mask, the ideal conditions.
NR: The process is reasonably straightforward if you know your materials and prepare the body properly. Initially the subject needs to have a release agent applied to the hair and skin so the moulding compound won’t stick or tear when removed. I use either alginate, a water based compound like the jelly that dentists use, or a silicon rubber. This is applied to the front portion of the face - I usually go just behind the ears and include the top of the head including neck to sternum, whereas traditionally it would be just the face- no ears, neck or head.
This however all depends on what the commissioner wants. Once the subject is covered with the moulding material, a hard casing needs to be applied to keep it in shape when it’s removed. This is usually done with plaster bandage. When both are cured the two are removed together providing a negative mould of the subject’s features. Later I fill this with a meltable wax, which when hardened can be reworked to sculpt hair or correct any imperfections in the casting, and any minor distortions or facial expressions, which need altering.
For example sometimes the weight of the cheeks can transfer down to the sideburn area, just as gravity subtlety changes your features when you lay down. This may look fine if the finished piece is to be displayed in this position, but should it be mounted upright, this needs to be corrected. Also sometimes the features might need a subtle tweak here and there, due to the dehydration effect embalming has; for example lips and eyeballs shrink considerably.
In Victorian times when Death Masks enjoyed a golden period of popularity, the cast would be taken almost immediately after death, before the face had time to change as muscles relax: nowadays they may have been deceased for up to a week before I get to them. In some cases it’s been 3 months - one in fact a whole year! So in extremes, there may be a need for a fair bit of restoration or it might be requested that the eyes are sculpted open, or that I take a few years off.
Once I am happy with the finished wax, sometimes this can take a day, (sometimes a few weeks) I make a silicon rubber mould and from this produce the finished article, be it in cold cast metals or hot cast foundry bronze.
TT: What's the most unusual place/location you've had to set a cast for a mask?
NR: There have been a few, but I guess the most memorable was that of John Joe Amador, an executed prisoner in Texas. After the state had killed him by lethal injection, (for a crime Amador didn’t commit) and refused to let me cast him, we took his body, put him in the back of the car and drove to a small shack in the woods and did it there. Then completely paranoid, I had to drive for two hours to another morgue with him on the back seat.
Incidentally his death mask became the centerpiece for an anti-death row art exhibition entitled '402' and ended up at the Victoria and Albert Museum last year for a show entitled ‘Disobedient Objects’.
TT: You've also created a number of Life Masks, many for people from the London underworld. What set this in motion? Does your family background play a part?
NR: Although I touched upon it, the ‘Cons to Icons’ show came about when I was rather taken aback by the media and public interest into Ronnie Kray’s death and funeral. He died at what became the beginning of a 60’s type gangster Chic revival in the 90’s. Films like ‘Lock, Stock (and Two Smoking Barrels)’ were coming out, fashion was following suit and old time villains now released from prison were writing best selling autobiography’s and on the telly.
I was fascinated how people vilified by the media one minute were then paradoxically feted on the celebrity circuit. As for myself growing up, society’s attitude was that having a father in prison was deemed a stigma - yet in the mid 90’s it was like having Michael Caine for a father! Funnily enough it’s been said that Caine based his look for Harry Palmer from my father (they knew each other), but that’s another story!
Anyway, around the time when Ronnie died I was making random abstract sculptures, which I wanted to mould in order to produce copies, so I bought a mouldmaking book, which interestingly had a chapter on face casting. I asked my father if I could try him as a guinea pig, but as there had been a lot of media regarding Ronnie’s death (who he had known since borstal) he asked why don’t I do Ronnie, so I made a few calls but the lid had just been screwed down and was about to leave the morgue and I missed the chance; but a seed was sown.
Anyway I cast my father (almost a disaster!) and then asked him to draw up a list of ten villains I should do next… 4 years later I’d completed my mission! Obviously, I don’t think those involved would have allowed me to cast them if they didn’t know my father.
TT: I imagine you've been asked to create masks for a number of yet-to-be-deceased people, come their time. How long is this list, and what motivates people to want to have masks made?
NR: Actually I haven’t… it’s seems to generally be a last minute, last chance saloon kind of thing. Let’s be honest, in today’s airbrushed world of plastic perfection, its unfashionable to think about death, and so generally the request comes rather late.
It’s rare for the commissioner to be the subject; it’s usually the closest relative who wants it for personal reasons, either comfort, to create a historical everlasting imprint for posterity or even to adorn their gravestone. Although death masks are not specific to the elite, they are more likely to commission one, as in Victorian times it was common to record the features of popular people from heads of state to leading militia, musicians, artists and poets.
Some people have them on plain sight at all times, some keep them stored away, to bring out on special occasions, some have them next to their bed. One thing most people are not aware of but death masks posses a very powerful cathartic effect, and can provide comfort for the bereaved. They are more tactile than a picture; they occupy a space, and like the Romans and Greeks who believed in animism (that a sculpture can be a repository for a spiritual being) it’s easy to believe that somehow a part of the deceased spirit might linger within the mask. After all there is something otherworldly about death masks, it’s as if their last breath has been transformed into 3 dimensional solid of themselves - almost as if the mystery of death is somehow transferred to the mask. It may sound strange but I talk to my Dad’s all the time!
TT: Will you be having one made when your time comes, and if so, who would you want to create it?
NR: I already have a life cast of myself, in fact it’s a whole body cast with me as Jesus, except Longinus’s spear wound is a vagina - I'm hoping I will be able to put it next to my father in Highgate (cemetery) when the time comes! Obviously I couldn't do the life-body cast myself, so I got the special effects people who did Harry Potter to cast me in plaster, which I then took away and worked on for some time.
Above: John Joe Amador's Death Mask & a life cast of the late RMT Union boss Bob Crow.
Apart from running Memorial Casts (the only company specializing in death masks) Nick Reynolds is currently preparing for Alabama 3’s ‘Lost and Found’ tour, who are also about to release a single of the same name (check alabama3.co.uk for dates, tickets and details), and is also co-writing and performing (with Edward Rose) the soundtrack for a Spaghetti Western ‘The Price of Life is Death.’
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