Henry Tonks’ Head-scapades
By Lucy A Waitt, on 15 November 2022
Many of you will be familiar with the legends which surround our beloved Jeremy Bentham and the alleged antics of his mummified and wax heads (two heads are better than one after all). According to UCL tradition these have been head-napped, ransomed and used as a football. For some further reading on this topic please see “Fake News”
This, however is the story of quite another UCL head.
Henry Tonks bust by Alfred Horace Gerrard (1899-1998)
When former Slade Professor Henry Tonks (1862-1937) died there were calls to set up a memorial and a prize for drawing in his name. Tonks was a surgeon who became fascinated by drawing at evening classes, later while teaching at the Slade he instructed the early careers of upcoming stars such as Stanley Spencer and Dora Carrington. It was another former pupil and colleague- Alfred Horace Gerrard who took on the task of sculpting the Tonks memorial bust. To create the likeness Gerrard used his memories of Tonks and a death mask he made together with W T Monnington (allegedly after having downed some liquid courage) you can read further detail about this mask which is held in the Slade archives here: Tonks Death Mask
Annotated Demonstration Drawings and Study of a Girl’s Head , c.1908
The finished bronze was installed in the entrance hall at the Slade, but it seems it was not to rest there forever. A letter from 1980 sent to Slade Professor Sir William Coldstream details an anonymous confession on the strange extra-curricular activities of the Tonks head.
The Tonks head wanderings began in 1966 when a group of students from the nearby Architectural Association (allegedly) gate-crashed the annual Slade Ball and upon their early hours exit impulsively decided to take Tonks head with them. The bust stayed happily in one of the studios at the AA but was taken home with a student at the end of term to a flat in Holland Park. The student expressed how embarrassed they were at still having the bust but they ‘could see no way of returning it without being caught’
Roll on the Architectural Association carnival and it was time for Tonks head to play a part in festivities once more. The head returned to the AA where the carnival theme was “We’re in the Pink” so the bronze was duly sprayed pink to coordinate with the decorations and found itself spot-lit, centre stage, and draped with bunting. Tired and emotional at the end of the party and with no-were to go Tonks’ bronze head once more went home with the AA student.
But Tonks head was not one to rest on its laurels and the letter continues with details of the next stage of the extraordinary adventures of his bronzed bonce. After a while in the bedroom Tonks was placed in the garden at the student’s new flat looking into the kitchen where it could be cheerfully greeted each morning. Then suddenly with no explanation it disappeared, and the student describes in the letter feeling responsible but powerless, knowing it was valuable and also stolen.
The AA student then describes how one day during a local festival there was a competition for best window dressing in local shops and walking past the newsagents there sat the (still very pink) Tonks head at the centrepiece of the display! It turned out the paper boy had passed the flat and been ‘unable to resist temptation’
In a final you-could-not-make-it-up twist the bust was then rescued from the newsagent’s by an indignant Sir William Coldstream ( Slade Professor 1949-1975) who lived nearby and was passing the shop. The bust was cleaned of the pink paint and now lives out a sedate retirement secure in UCL’s Housman Room where members are totally oblivious to its former life as the centre of the party.
In 2021/2022 UCL is celebrating 150 years of the Slade School of Fine Art, to learn more about this and free events and exhibitions at UCL Art Museum and other spaces please visit the Slade 150 website: Slade150