The Joy of Museums

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Ned Kelly – Death Mask

National Portrait Gallery, Canberra, Australia - Joy of Museums - Ned Kelly - Death Mask

This is the death mask of Edward ‘Ned’ Kelly (1855–1880) who was a bushranger of Irish descent and is an Australian folk hero. In the 1800’s it was common practice for authorities to allow the making of a plaster ‘death mask’ of an executed criminal, to conduct phrenological analysis. The masks were often put on public display and Ned Kelly’s death mask was an object of significant public interest in the late 1800’s.

Kelly was born in the colony of Victoria as the third of eight children to an Irish convict and an Australian mother with Irish parentage. His father died after serving a six-month prison sentence, leaving Kelly, aged 12, as the eldest male of the household. The Kelly’s were poor and saw themselves as downtrodden and as victims of police persecution. Kelly was convicted of stealing horses and imprisoned for three years in 1870. After his release, he was indicted for the attempted murder of a police officer at his family’s home. After fleeing into the bush, he and his gang killed three policemen and they were all proclaimed outlaws.

Ned Kelly in 1880

Ned Kelly the day before his execution, 10 November 1880

Kelly and his gang gained publicity after committing armed bank robberies in Euroa and Jerilderie and after murdering a friend turned police informer. In a manifesto letter, Kelly denouncing the police, the government and the British Empire and set down his account of the events leading up to him becoming an outlaw. Demanding justice for his family and the rural poor, he threatened those who defied him, he ended with the words:

“I am a widow’s son outlawed and my orders must be obeyed.”

Pursued by police, Kelly and his gang, dressed in self-made suits of metal armour and their bushranger careers ended in a final deadly confrontation with the police at Glenrowan, Victoria in 1880. All were killed except Kelly, who was wounded and captured. Despite thousands of supporters attending rallies and signing a petition for his reprieve, Kelly was convicted and sentenced to death by hanging. Kelly was hung at the Old Melbourne Gaol and his last words are famously reported to have been:

“such is life”.

Ned Kelly remains a cultural icon, inspiring countless works in the arts, and is the subject of more biographies than any other Australian.

Ned kelly armour library

Ned Kelly armour, located at the State Library of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia

Maximilian Kreitmayer (1830–1906), who made the death mask, was a medical model maker and waxworks proprietor, who arrived in Victoria in 1856 and opened a anatomical museum. Kreitmayer is believed to have shaved Kelly’s hair and beard and taken the mould of his face in the deadhouse of the Melbourne Gaol.

Among the many historical portraits in the National Portrait Gallery the following are highlights:

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Essential Facts:

  • Title:                Ned Kelly – Death Mask
  • Artist:              Attributed to Maximilian Kreitmayer
  • Year:                1880
  • Medium:         Caster Plaster
  • Dimensions:   28.0 x 21.5 x 18.5 cm
  • Museum:         National Portrait Gallery, Canberra, Australia

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” Some mistakes are too much fun to only make once.” Australian Proverb

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Photo Credits: 1) By GordonMakryllos (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons 2) By Australian News and Information Bureau, Canberra (National Archives of Austrailia) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 3) By Chensiyuan (Chensiyuan) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons