Unlikely objects in the archive
By Liz Bruchet, on 6 March 2013
Archives can contain all manner of unlikely odds and ends. As a Research Assistant on the Slade Archive project, I have been charged with the task of scoping the archive to determine what can be made more publicly accessible. Walking into the archives for the first time, I came across this surprise: a death mask of former Slade Professor Henry Tonks (1862–1937).
Tonks was a painter and draughtsman with a reputation for being a fierce but highly influential presence at the Slade. A surgeon by training, he had a successful career at Royal Free Hospital in London before being invited to join the teaching staff at the Slade in 1893 by Frederick Brown, then Principal of the School. Tonks’ understanding of anatomy and his fine draughtsmanship are legendary and his teachings are said to have impacted notable students such as Augustus John, Stanley Spencer, Wyndham Lewis, Mark Gertler and Rex Whistler.
According a the story still told at the Slade, it was William Coldstream (1908-1987) and Walter Thomas Monnington (1902-1976) who cast this mask shortly after Tonks’ death in 1937. Understandably squeamish what was involved in making the mask, they fortified themselves with drink to the extent that they made a quite a mess during the casting process … or so the story goes. Besides showing how informal oral histories can work alongside archive objects to shed light on the personalities and events behind the Slade’s history, this mask is an example of just how many connections can be drawn through the various Slade archive materials held within UCL: there is a bronze bust of Tonks sitting proudly in the Housman Room at UCL, various photographic portraits of him in the Slade archive, some of his artworks in UCL Art Museum and his papers in UCL Special Collections – and this posthumous portrait by Walter Thomas Monnington, also in the collection of UCL Art Museum – which provides a curious counterpoint to the mask in the archive.