A Rare Plaster Phrenology Bust Prepared by A.L. Vago (1839-1896) London 1869

Origin: English
Period: Mid-Victorian
Provenance: Unknown
Date: c.1869
Height: 6"
Width: 2.5”
Depth: 3.5”

The wonderfully evocative phrenologist bust in plaster, mapping the labeled regions of the human brain, such as 'Intellectual Faculties' and 'Destructive' via a number of printed paper labels applied to the head listing the mental faculties, and coated with applied lacquer, having been damaged and repaired, the reverse stamped "Published by A.L.Vago London 1869' surviving from mid-Victorian period London.

The condition of the bust is as found with some surface chipping to the top surface and areas of thinning to the glaze, in a few areas, please see the photographs for full visual reference. Some of the paper labels are absent. It has obviously been dropped at some stage in its life and pieced back together; though the repair seems a very old one; this aside it remains in-tact and whole.

Ambrose Lewis Vago was born in London. The son of an immigrant Italian figure maker, Vago was born in the holborn district of London and died in Pancras. He also wrote the book Orthodox Phrenology in 1866 and a handbook, Instructions in the art of modeling in clay. Ambrose Lewis worked as a modeller and phrenologist from c.1861 until his death. He published quite a number of texts on phrenology and appears also to have made exhibits. Vago said of the phrenology bust; 'a surgery was considered to be incompletely furnished without such a bust; and a phrenological head was a regular item in the order for an outifit such as applied by medical men by the firm of Messrs. Maw, Son and Thompson, surgical instrument makers of London.' This being dated to 1869 means it is an early example of its type.

Derived from the theories of the idiosyncratic Viennese physician Franz Joseph Gall (1758-1828), phrenology was a faculty psychology, theory of brain and science of character reading, and what nineteenth century phrenologists called "the only true science of mind". Gall made morality approachable and definitive by labeling regions of the human brain, as we see here, which would swell or deflate according to their prominence until adulthood when the cranial bone fused into indelible proof of ones abilities and shortcomings.

Based on his observations, from the late 1700s Gall claimed that the brain contained "inner senses" whose development determined the shape of the brain and ultimately, the shape of the skull. It became especially popular in England, where Gall's supporter Thomas Forster named the new discipline "phrenology" - meaning 'science of the soul'. In the early 1800s, all kinds of people, with little or no medical training, liked to engage in phrenology using (usually plaster) phrenological heads like this one as maps for reading skull shapes.  

Early heads are plaster, with ceramic models then becoming the norm and more popular in the late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries as they were less prone to damages and labels rubbing off.  Phrenological heads cast in plaster or ceramic became commonplace adornments in American homes in particular; according to an article in the Boston Christian Examiner in 1834, "Heads of chalk, inscribed with mystic numbers, disfigured every mantelpiece." The latter phrenology movement was largely responsible for the anthropometric (head reading) craze of the latter 19th century and its well-known anthropological and racial concerns.

Albeit in a more parlous state than the ideal, this remains a rare and very decorative piece.