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The Somnambulists


Posted by Mark Sinclair, 22 February 2008, 16:28    Permalink    Comments (11)

Princess Tolstoya, 1800-1873

Edinburgh-based photographer Joanna Kane’s latest book, The Somnambulists, is a series of rather unconventional portraits. While at first glance the images appear to be intimate studies of various sleeping figures they are, in fact, recent photographs of life and death masks that are between 150 and 200 years old.

Unknown Woman
Unknown woman

The casts belong to a collection housed at the Edinburgh Phrenological Society (phrenology is the study of how the contours of the head affect psychological attributes). The book's appendix details the identities of the casts – a Russian princess, shown top, sits alongside a series of unknown figures, for example – and, if known, whether the mask has captured the subject alive or dead (in both cases shown above it's unclear).

It’s an eerily beautiful body of work: coming face to face with Keats, Blake, Wordsworth and Coleridge (who all feature and are shown, below) is strangely compelling, particularly as the casts all pre-date photography.

Eastache Bellinore Bellin, 1773-1835. This cast is apparently "labelled as a death mask,
although the intent expression and tightly screwed up eyes are characteristic of a life mask."

Cautious Woman
Unknown Woman, a "cautious type" ie possibly suicidal

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1772-1834, life mask

John Keats, 1795-1821, life mask

William Wordsworth, 1770-1850, life mask made in 1815

William Blake, 1757-1827, life mask made in 1823

From Kane's introduction to The Somnambulists:

"The life or death mask can be considered the sculptural analogue of the photographic portrait. Both suggest direct traces from life, involve positive and negative, and evoke a mysterious connection between living, breathing subject and captured image...

In creating the portraits, the aim has been to take these subjects out of the categories and hierarchies of the phrenological collection. My interest has been in transforming them from disembodied scientific specimens into photographically embodied images of individual men and women."

Images from The Somnambulists are currently on show at
Scottish National Portrait Gallery
Queen Street, Edinburgh
January 22 - April 4

The Somnambulists is published by Dewi Lewis at £19.99

More of Kane's work at


it's bad luck to shoot people with the eyes close.
erase the post!
2008-02-23 18:37:58

Could you tell me when the work will be exhibited again?
julian hughes
2008-09-23 15:15:48

this is amazing
2009-06-30 17:44:18

Remarkable. Very interesting - bringing them to life.
2009-10-24 22:14:18

John Keats is very handsome and dreamy... he's imagining something wonderful - i see in his face meadows under bright blue sky and sparkling sun, and i hear the murmur of stream...
2010-01-29 10:31:46

Nothing I have seen brings the great Romantic poets to life with such intensity. So much of their being, real or imagined, seems embedded there.
2010-03-31 10:41:32

Interesting work but I'd rather see the shots without so much gratuitous and quite poorly done 'photoshopping' trying to make them look ethereal and shadowy. If they could have been shot like that it would be great, but adding it afterwards in quite an amateur way is not so hot.
tim Spencer
2010-03-31 12:13:12

the value to the imagination doesn't boil down to choice of technique -
2010-04-04 19:56:27

There is a beautifull song called " eternity in an hour"
inspired on Blakes poem.
Its worth to check it out at
carlo hampton
2010-07-28 06:57:29

Vanity, vanity all is vanity. You would think these individuals would be
above immortalising themselves in plaster. Some would certainly moan
about the celebrity culture of today. It appears as if there is nothing new
in people wanting, so much, to be recognised.
I used to have a death mask of William Blake.
It is exactly the same as the life mask.
`It was greatly enhanced by the addition of two bulging eyeballs.
roderick Jackson
2011-01-29 22:11:03

Death masks probably weren't supposed to immortalized the subject in the way we think of celebrities immortalized. What I draw from these, and especially added to the photography technique, is a sense of evanescence. Especially for the Romantic poets.
2011-10-29 18:11:57

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