‘L’Inconnue’ – a death mask with many a story to tell

John Gwynn's poem 'A Death Mask' in the Strand magazine appears to have been inspired by a drowned woman in Paris

John Gwynn’s poem ‘A Death Mask’ in the Strand magazine appears to have been inspired by a drowned woman in Paris

John Gwynn’s poem ‘A Death Mask’ in the Strand magazine of January 1901 appears to have been inspired by a drowned woman in Paris. But this mask has many other tales to tell.

Although he does not mention Paris in the poem, the story of ‘L’Inconnue‘, ‘the Unknown Woman’ who was picked out of the Seine and whose death mask was a popular exhibit in artists’ homes, undoubtedly  inspired this and many other literary works.

She has been described as the Mona Lisa, Greta Garbo and Brigitte Bardot of her age, a face that launched a thousand ships. However, a more prosaic ‘launch’ can be seen in London’s St John’s Gate, at the Museum of the Order of St John, for, in 1958, the face was used in the prototype ‘Resusci-Annie’ mannequin, made by Peter Safar and Asmund Laerdal and crucial to the First Aid training provided by St John Ambulance ever since.

The St John’s Gate building has been used by the order since about 1890, but it is also of interest to literary and magazine history because 30 of Shakespeare’s plays were licensed there. Also, in the 1700s, it was used as a coffee house, run by Richard Hogarth, father of the artist William Hogarth – and then from 1731 by Edward Cave as the printing house for The Gentleman’s Magazine – the first periodical to use the word ‘magazine’ in the printed context. The museum has a volume of the magazine on display. Doctor Johnson wrote for the Gentleman’s Magazine and used it in his definition of ‘magazine’ in his Dictionary. Later still, it became a pub, The Old Jerusalem Tavern, where artists and writers, including Charles Dickens, used to meet.

Apparently, the first story about a UFO to appear in the press was in a 1762 edition of the Gentleman’s Magazine and the museum it running workshops in commemoration of the event on October 28 and 29.

A 2013 article by Jeremy Grange on the BBC’s website ‘Resusci Anne and L’Inconnue: The Mona Lisa of the Seine‘ is fascinating for the tales it has to tell – including the many stories of people who claim to know who the woman was. The one he heard at Edward Chambre Hardman’s photographic studio in Liverpool is very poignant. I particularly liked it because I used to clean the windows of doctors’ offices in that very street.

Death mask in porcelain of L'Inconnue de la Seine at the museum of the Order of St John in London's Clerkenwell

Death mask in porcelain of L’Inconnue de la Seine at the museum of the Order of St John in London’s Clerkenwell

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One Response to “‘L’Inconnue’ – a death mask with many a story to tell”

  1. From GQ ancestor to E pluribus unum | Magforum Says:

    […] can still visit the building where Cave worked, and see a copy of his magazine, at St John’s Gate in London’s […]

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