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UCL Culture Blog


News and musings from the UCL Culture team


Is the auto-icon wearing underwear?

By Nick J Booth, on 30 March 2015

A year or so ago a colleague drew my attention to a Jeremy Bentham related sketch by the ever excellent Horrible Histories BBC programme. Amongst the many Bentham inventions it highlights (including words such as ‘maximise’, ‘minimise’, ‘international’ and appropriately enough ‘eccentric’) was one I’d never heard of before – Jeremy Bentham invented underpants.

Jeremy Bentham's auto-icon.

Jeremy Bentham’s auto-icon.

As you can imagine, this is popular with school groups visiting the auto-icon, and along with his mummified head tends to be the fact school kids remember.

Interested to learn more I contacted the Horrible Histories historian Greg Jenner to ask his source. He pointed me to a 2005 conservation report by the Textile Conservation Centre (TCC) on the auto-icon. This report did indeed record the auto-icon as wearing a pair of underpants (and two sets of socks).

However this led to another realisation…we were lacking a lot of paperwork related to the care and condition of the auto-icon, including a full copy of this conservation report. Thankfully our conservation team here were able to contact Kate Gill, who had worked at the TCC when the auto-icon was last undressed and fully inspected. We met with her and she was able to find a copy of the original report at the TCC in Glasgow.

We now have a copy of the photo of the underwear!

So the auto-icon is wearing underpants, and not just that but they may well be the oldest pair of underpants ever…

The auto-icons underpants.  Copyright Textile Conservation Foundation (TCF).

The auto-icon’s underpants.
Copyright Textile Conservation Foundation (TCF).

As part of this underwear quest we had to read several conservation reports on the auto-icon, including one from 1939 written by the excellently named Miss Violet Lafleur, UCL’s conserver at the time. All of these recommend regular inspections of the auto-icon, however it seems that this has never really happened. Realising that it’s been over a year since the last inspection we resolved to inspect the auto-icon again, and following the levels of interest last time (see ‘Bentham’s day out‘), we have again decided to make the event open to the public…

The auto-icon of Jeremy Bentham will be taken off public display on April 10th and given a light clean and inspection by conservation staff at UCL during the morning. Between 12.30 – 4.30 we will then make the auto-icon available for members of the public to view (free of charge) in the Rock Room, UCL’s Geology Museum. Staff will be present during the public opening hours to answer any questions visitors may have.

So if you are free during the afternoon of April 10th and would like to ‘meet’ Jeremy Bentham please do come visit.

And spare a thought for Jeremy Bentham next time you get dressed in the morning…

Nick Booth is one of the Teaching and Research Curators at UCL.


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