He stuffed off to the US two centuries after his death
Eccentric philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who had his body preserved after his death, always wanted to travel to the US
Few people would relish the prospect of their lifeless skeleton being wired up, stuffed into sawdust-filled clothing, bundled into a crate and shipped to the US for museum-goers to gawk at.
But for Jeremy Bentham, the British philosopher, it is almost certainly what he would have wanted. The social reformer, who died in 1832, insisted his body be preserved after his death as an “auto-icon”, which could be wheeled out at parties if his friends missed him.
A notable eccentric, Bentham called his walking stick Dapple, his teapot Dickey and kept an elderly cat named The Reverend Sir John Langbourne.
He has been on display at University College London since his death, but now for the first time the strange mannequin, comprising skeleton, wax head, clothes, hat, chair and walking stick, is to leave UCL for the Met Breuer museum in New York.
It was always Bentham’s ambition to visit America, but one he never achieved.
Jayne Dunn, head of collections management at UCL, said: “The first thing we had to do was to discover whether he was suffering from any infestations. We don’t want to send an object to another museum and infect their collection with pests. If he had been we would have had to fumigate him. He is wearing the original underwear — which has not got infested — and two sets of stockings, one over the other.
“Carpet beetles love wool, but they are less keen on linen, which is why we think the vest, underpants and stockings have survived.”
The skeleton is padded with wood shavings, held in place by a large -stocking over the body, but the stuffing has lost its shape.
“When you have an old sofa, everything settles into the bottom and you have to plump up the cushions,” said Subhadra Das, a curator at UCL.
“Well, the same thing happened with Bentham. We have not added anything, but reapportioned where it is, so he looks a lot slimmer.”
Bentham was a leading philosopher and social thinker of the 18th and early 19th century, and was pivotal in the establishment of Britain’s first police force, the Thames River Police, in 1800, the precedent for Robert Peel’s reforms 30 years later.
In his will, he asked that his skeleton “be put together in such a manner as that the whole figure may be seated in a chair usually occupied by me when living, in the attitude in which I am sitting when engaged in thought”.
The New York exhibition, Life Like: Sculpture, Color and the Body, documents 700 years of sculptural practice from 14th century Europe to the present, and brings together sculptures from Donatello and El Greco to Louise Bourgeois and Jeff Koons.
Bentham’s actual head is on temporary display at UCL. After a mummification error, it was deemed too distasteful to show and is now kept in a safe. It is removed just once a year to check that the skin and hair are not falling off.
– © The Daily Telegraph