Jeremy Bentham’s third head

By Tim Causer, on 23 July 2012

Of those who know something of Jeremy Bentham’s auto-icon—his preserved skeleton, dressed in his clothes, which sits in a box here at UCL—a few will be aware that Bentham originally planned that his real (preserved) head would form part of the display. Unfortunately—or fortunately, depending on your point of view—the result of the preservation process was decidedly unpleasant; those brave enough can have a look at the real thing in this Bentham Project video. Though the real head used to be displayed in a box of its own, on top of the auto-icon cabinet, it is no longer on public display as it has been classed as ‘human remains’. The head is extremely fragile (don’t believe those myths about students kicking it around like a football), and is now stored in environmentally-controlled conditions at UCL’s Institute of Archaeology. Access to it is very rarely granted, as even the slightest motion can cause hairs to fall off.

Bentham’s auto-icon, with Bentham’s first head

The preserved original head has never been part of the auto-icon. Since the process went so awry, a second head was created and it is this one with which most will be familiar. It wears Bentham’s hat, and some of his real hair was threaded into the wax. This second head is apparently an extremely good likeness—Bentham’s friend (Lord) Henry Brougham suggested that it was ‘so perfect that it seems as if alive’—and is certainly far less disturbing than the first.

The second head: the official version

Much less well-known is Bentham’s third head, though it is far less official than the other two. It is another (much cruder) wax head, this time dating from the 1980s. One suspects that Lord Brougham would not have been so taken with this likeness, which is more country squire than utilitarian philosopher. Housed in a wooden box of its own, it was on display at the Jeremy Bentham pub—located just a quick walk from the auto-icon, on University Street—until a few years ago, when the pub underwent renovation works. The head was going to be disposed of and was salvaged by the Bentham Project, and had been stored in Room 112 at 26 Gordon Square (currently my office) ever since.

The third head: a little too long out in the sun

We are currently in the process of moving offices, and there will be no room for the third head in my new room. Fortunately, UCL’s Student Union is providing it with sanctuary, and it should ultimately be displayed there. We are very glad that it is going to a good home, and look forward to seeing it on public access again. (I must admit that I won’t miss its orange visage staring out at me from its box).

Update, 21 May 2013: If you want to see Bentham’s third head, it is now on display in the Huntley Bar at UCLU.