Victor Hugo and Guernsey: Tapner's death mask

8th March 2019
Tapner's death mask head by Carel Toms (c) Priaulx Library Guernsey

‘Tu ne tueras pas.’ Pas d’exception. ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ No exceptions. [Victor Hugo, 19 Feb. 1854, Marine Terrace, Jersey]. This death mask was kept by Victor Hugo in the Billiard Room in Hauteville House along with his famous drawing of Tapner, 'Le Pendu,' or 'The Hanged Man.' The Billiard Room was also home to portraits of the Hugo family, other favourite drawings, and maps of meaningful places in Hugo's life. The importance of these memoirs of Tapner to Hugo is thus obvious: they were a permanent reminder of the cruelty of man to man, and of his (for him) abject failure to save Tapner from the scaffold. In addition Hugo blamed himself for Tapner's execution, believing that his ardent intervention had actually been counter-productive - that the French government had pressed upon their British allies not to give in to Hugo's wishes, and that the British had complied. This striking photograph of the mask is by the late Guernsey photographer Carel Toms, taken in 1975, and is part of the Guernsey Photographic Archive held at the Priaulx Library.

Tapner’s death mask

‘Thou shalt not kill.’ No exceptions. [Victor Hugo, 19 Feb. 1854, Marine Terrace, Jersey]

Mr Tyrell offered to take me to the plaster moulder who had taken Tapner’s death mask. I accepted.

I knew so little of the Town roads then that the whole place seemed like a maze.

We crossed several of those grassy St Peter Port streets at the top of Town, and then we went down quite a wide street which descends into one of the four or five ravines that slice through the town. Opposite a house with two conical topiary cypresses there is a monumental mason’s. We went into this mason’s yard. One was immediately struck by a crowd of cemetery crosses and gravestones standing by the path or leant against the walls. A workman, alone under a lean-to, was putting filler into earthenware tiles. M Tyrell spoke a few words to him in English. ‘Yes, sir,’ answered the workman, and he went to some rough wooden shelves at the back of the shed, searched about amongst the plaster rubble and the dust and brought us out a mask in one hand and a head in the other. It was Tapner’s death mask and Tapner’s head. The mask had been coloured pink; the plaster of the head had remained white. The mask had been taken from the face when it still had its sideburns and hair; then they had shaved the head and had taken the mould with the skull, face and neck bare. Tapner was as famous in Guernsey as Lacenaire had been in Paris.

As the Sheriff had told me, this face was indeed strangely calm.  It bore, I thought, a striking resemblance to the admirable Hungarian violinist Reméniy. Its physiognomy was young and serious; the eyes, closed, were sleeping; only a bit of froth, thick enough for the plaster to retain the shape, caused one corner of the top lip to appear raised, which eventually, if you looked at it long enough, gave this face a sort of sinisterly ironic expression. Although the skin’s elasticity at the time of the moulding had caused the neck to return to almost to its natural size, the imprint of the rope was deeply embedded, and the slipknot, distinctly marked underneath the right ear, had left behind a hideous lump.

I wanted to take that head with me. They sold it to me for 3 francs.

 

[Victor Hugo, Choses vues, 1855, ‘Sur Tapner.’]

For more about Tapner see Sparring with Palmerston and Thomas Falla writes to Victor Hugo, 1854


La tête de Tapner

‘Tu ne tueras pas.’ Pas d’exception. [Victor Hugo, 19 fév. 1854, Marine Terrace, Jersey]

M. Tyrrell m’offrit de me conduire chez le plâtrier qui avait moulé Tapner mort. J’acceptai.

Je connaissais encore si peu les rues de la ville que tout m’y semblait labyrinthe.

Nous traversâmes plusieurs de ces rues hautes de Saint-Pierre-Port où l’herbe pousse et nous descendîmes une street assez large qui plonge dans un des quatre ou cinq ravins dont la ville est coupée. Vis-à-vis d’une maison devant laquelle se dressent deux cyprès taillés en cône, il y a un marbrier. Nous entrâmes dans la cour de ce marbrier. La vue y est frappée d’abord d’une foule de croix de cimetière et de pierres de sépulture debout sur le passage ou appuyées aux murs. Un ouvrier, seul sous un appentis, mastiquait des carreaux de faïence. M. Tyrrell lui dit quelques mots en anglais. — Yes, sir, répondit l’ouvrier, et il alla à des planches disposées en étagères au fond de l’appentis, y fouilla dans les plâtras et la poussière et rapporta d’une main un masque et de l’autre une tête. C’était le masque de Tapner et la tête de Tapner. On avait colorié le masque en rose ; le plâtre de la tête était resté blanc. Le masque avait été fait sur le visage ayant encore les favoris et les cheveux ; puis on avait rasé la tête et l’on avait moulé le crâne nu, la face nue et le cou. Tapner était célèbre à Guernesey comme Lacenaire l’avait été à Paris.

Ainsi que me l’avait dit le prévôt, cette figure avait en effet un calme étrange. Elle me rappelait, par une ressemblance singulière, l’admirable violon hongrois Reméniy. La physionomie était jeune et grave ; les yeux fermés dormaient ; seulement un peu d’écume, assez épaisse pour que le plâtre en eût gardé l’empreinte, soulevait un coin de la lèvre supérieure, ce qui finissait par donner à cette face, quand on la regardait longtemps, une sorte d’ironie sinistre. Quoique l’élasticité des chairs eût fait reprendre au cou, au moment du moulage, à peu près la grosseur naturelle, l’empreinte de la corde y était marquée profondément, et le nœud coulant, distinctement imprimé sous l’oreille droite, y avait laissé un gonflement hideux.

Je voulus emporter cette tête. On me la vendit trois francs.

 

[Victor Hugo, Choses vues, 1855, ‘Sur Tapner.’]

 

‘Tu ne tueras pas.’ Pas d’exception. [VH, 19 Feb 1854, Marine Terrace.]