The inimitably pukka voice of Jacob Rees-Mogg echoed through Radio 4 on Thursday morning. He was not, though, talking about nappies, nannies or even Brexit; his topic instead was death masks and specifically that made of his father William, the newspaper editor and vice-chairman of the BBC, who died in 2012. Not long after Rees-Mogg had passed from this life, his facial features were immortalised in wax and silicon rubber by Nick Reynolds, godson of Ronnie Biggs and son of Bruce Reynolds (whose names you may recall from the great train robbery of August 1963).
In Death Masks: The Undying Face (produced by Helen Lee), Reynolds talked us through the whole process, from the initial making of an impression of Rees-Mogg’s face with alginate (that horrible pink stuff which dentists use to model your mouth) to layering with bandage strips and plaster of Paris to make the negative. From these basic materials emerges a 3-D image, something solid and tangible, a way of cheating death, of creating a form of immortality. ‘All it needed was a pair of glasses and there was my father staring out,’ said Jacob.
‘Have you ever spoken to it?’ asked Reynolds.
‘No,’ Jacob replied.
‘Has your mother?’
‘No… It’s not my father,’ Jacob insisted. ‘It’s a representation… It’s comforting, though, because it’s evident that he was at peace.’
Rees-Mogg senior is in the company of Ronnie Biggs and Peter O’Toole, both of whom have been ‘immortalised’ by Reynolds, along with the film director Ken Russell and Reynolds’s father. ‘It allows me to talk to my Dad,’ says Reynolds, whose home is filled with death masks he has collected, ‘even though I don’t believe in the afterlife.’
He became interested in death masks after seeing Oliver Cromwell’s at Warwick Castle when he was a child.