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—some 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 with a strong enough constitution can have a look at the real thing in this Bentham Project video. Though the real head has been displayed at Bentham’s feet, and in a box of its own on top of the auto-icon’s 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.
Despite Bentham’s intentions, 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.
Much less well-known is Bentham’s third head, which is far less official a version than the other two, a crude plastic head and upper torso dating from the 1980s. One suspects that Brougham would not have been as taken with this likeness, which is disturbingly orange and much 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. [Update: the Jeremy Bentham pub is, alas, no more, and is now a Simmons cocktail bar.] The head was to be disposed of until rescued by the Bentham Project, and was stored in Room 112 at 26 Gordon Square (formerly my office) until summer 2012.
We moved offices in August 2012 and there was no room for the third head in my new accommodation. 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 while I’m trying to work, as though the big man himself was keeping an eye on me.
Update, 21 May 2013: If you want to see Bentham’s third head, it is now on display in the Huntley Bar at UCLU.
Update, 1 February 2022: like a boomerang, Bentham’s third head has returned to the Bentham Project, owing to the Huntley Bar undergoing renovation work, and is now in a store cupboard while we work out what to do with it.