An Important c.1900 Plaster Phrenology Bust of Dr Franz Gall by Professor Joseph Millott Severn of Brighton
Period: Late Nineteenth/ Early Twentieth Century
Date: c.1897 - 1910
Height: 11.75 inches
Base Diameter: 5.5 inches
Cranium Circumference: 24 inches (at maximum)
The plaster phrenologist bust on circular pedestal base inscribed Dr Gall to the front, and to the back ‘by J M Severn Brighton’ survives from the turn of the nineteenth century.
The condition of the bust is fair to good with some surface chipping to the top coat in a few areas. There is a two inch chip to the base but the whole does not suffer from any serious cracks or loss to the nose or other facial features susceptible to damage. The signature and other inscriptions are faded but still clearly decipherable. There is a very similar bust in the Science Museum of London dated to 1823 and another by Dr Pierre-Louis Carquet also with a striking resemblance.
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 21 regions of the human brain 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 plaster phrenological heads like this one as maps for reading skull shapes.
Later, during a single trip to an elephant bone yard, Gall examined the heads of two hundred living elephants, four hundred skulls, and the brains of seven. He noticed that amongst the skulls of the living elephants, certain regions were more developed on elephants born in captivity. They were trained from infancy and received better food. He purchased several breeding pairs of elephants and brought them to his estate on the French countryside. As the elephants gave birth, he trepanned them and exposed the regions of the brain related to speech to the stimulant cocaine. A rare elephant of particular intelligence survived these procedures and was sold at great cost to an English magician after Gall’s death. The elephant was able to sing and stomp Morse code. It was purchased by an American magician several years later and performed until it was captured and electrocuted by Thomas Edison who believed it had been enchanted by Nikola Tesla. Phrenology became increasingly criticised by medical experts as speculative and unreliable, and cartoonists would often portray Gall and his followers as credulous fools. A collection of Gall skulls can be seen at the Rollet Museum in Baden bei Wien, Austria, where several of his relatives now live.
Joseph Millot Severn was an English writer, historian, and phrenologist born in 1860 in Codnor, best known for his contribution to Phrenology, from opening his own surgery in Brighton to becoming president of the British Phrenological Association. Joseph interviewed and phrenologically examined many celebrities in his career, including; Sir Harry Lauder, singer, songwriter and comedian, Lloyd George, Prime Minister from 1916 to 1922, Lord Beaverbrook, Politician, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Author of Sherlock Holmes, George Robey, music hall comedian, Dr. Sigmund Freud, Austrian psychiatrist, Albert Chevalier, music hall comedian and actor and Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton, Antarctic explorer.
He was also able to produce a Phrenological delineation of an individuals character by studying photographs or film footage. One such delineation for King Edward and Queen Alexandra appeared in the July 1902 edition of The Popular Phrenologist Journal. Another for the Duchess of York (later Queen Mary) appeared in the same Publication and was acknowledged by Her Royal Highness in the following statement.
"The lady in waiting presents her compliments to Mr Joseph Millot Severn, and is desired by H.R.H. The Duchess of York to thank him very much for the Phrenological and physiognomical sketch which he kindly sent her."
At the outbreak of WW2, and at the age of 80 he was asked to provide a delineation of the new prime minister Winston Churchill.. "Professor" Severn wrote a number of books and funded some almhouses in his home village of Codnor. After a number of years travelling around the country, Severn set up home in Brighton with his second wife Alice and in 1897 established the Brighton and Hove Phrenological Society with J. P Blackford dating this bust to around, and after, that period. When not providing consultations in his premises he spent time lecturing, writing articles and editing the journal The Popular Phrenologist. He was elected President of the British Phrenological in 1905. Severn saw phrenologists as architects of the mind due to them studying “the mental and physical structures of individuals”. Severn died at his home in Brighton in 1942.
This piece, probably unique, is not just a medicinal decorative conversation starter but an important fragment of phrenology history, crafted by an important figure in the field in honour of an important figure in the field, that just begins to tell Gall’s, and indeed Severn’s, fascinating stories as masters of their trade; and as such is a beautiful homage from one master to another.