This is the death mask of the Duke of Wellington, a plaster model of his face taken on the day he died, on 14 September 1852. The Duke was 83 years old at the time of his death, probably from a stroke. Although over 30 years had passed since the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, and his political career had not been popular, the Duke was still a national hero, and his death led to widespread mourning.
During the 19th century it was common to make a model of the face of someone who had recently died. This could be used to produce plaster casts, like this one, as a memento or commemorative item for the friends and admirers of the deceased. This cast, unlike some, was not widely distributed – perhaps because it shows the Duke as an elderly and fragile man, rather than as the young, dashing war hero of popular imagination.
The Duke died in Walmer Castle, Deal, England, which had been his official residence as Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports. This post was the last of many military and government offices he had held since his victory at Waterloo in 1815. The Duke had been, in turn, Warden of the Tower of London, Commander-in-Chief of the British Army, and Prime Minister. In the last position, he became for the first time ever unpopular with the public, by opposing attempts to reform the British system of parliamentary representation.
However, he continued to be a hugely influential and respected figure even when mobs were hurling stones at the windows of his London house. He also remained strong enough to attend Parliament, sitting in the House of Lords, and to keep up with his official business as Lord Warden, right up until his death.
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This object is in the collection of Apsley House – English Heritage