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  • Richard III: Between the Bust and the Face February 18, 2013

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval , trackback

    richard iii

    ***Dedicated to Jround***

    The excitement over the discovery of Richard III’s body has been entirely understandable: the documentaries, the articles, even an obituary in The Economist. But there at the centre of it is that reconstruction (above), which means that Richard III has now the best known of all English monarchs’ faces. How accurate though is the bust?

    Let’s start with the method. Caroline Wilkinson, professor of craniofacial identification at Dundee, created a 3d digital model, using a method that, used on living persons, is 70% within 2mm of the actual face. This blogger is not quite sure what this means, but presumably we are saying that 70% of the face is pretty much right. The bust was then replicated in plastic.

    At this point an artist, Janice Aitken, took over and tried to create a realistic individual. As JA has stated: ‘My part in the process was purely interpretive rather than scientific’. And JA used portraits of Richard (late as they are) to try and achieve as accurate a finish as possible with skin texture. It seems that she did not alter the physcial shape of the bust in anyway.

    The problem for Beach is not with the interpretative flourish at the end: this seems absolutely justified given the rest of the proof amassed. Rather, it is with the original digital bust. When a face is being recreated then necessarily there has to be some interpretation there too.

    Why? Orwell said it best: ‘we all have the face we deserve by the time we are 40’. And he was right: laugh creases, worry wrinkles etc. But these changes are NOT for the most part represented on our skull. They are surface marks, which tend not to be picked up. Facial reconstruction can do the incredible, for example, determine likely lip size (tissue that, of course, disappears). But it cannot do everything.

    Usually facial reconstruction is undertaken to identify someone: e.g. a man’s skeleton is found in a ditch, can we find his relatives? It, therefore, makes sense for a reconstruction to remain as neutral as possible within the limits that the skull offers. But, in this case, we all knew who the relatives were. We wanted to see the man, his face and if possible his soul.

    You can see this in some of the comments that have come out about Richard’s bust. This is Phillipa Langley, one of the activists who have helped recover Richard’s body: ‘It doesn’t look like the face of a tyrant. I’m sorry but it doesn’t. He’s very handsome. It’s like you could just talk to him, have a conversation with him right now.’

    PL was understandably very excited about what she has seen. There is no way in which words that in a moment of high emotion pour out should be held against her. But that judgment about a Richard not being the stuff that tyrants are made of – echoed in an early exchange in The Daughter of Time…. We can ponder to what extent faces can tell us whether someone is a tyrant or not. How much can faces ever tell us? For example, is this really a man who would go screaming almost unprotected on the battlefield towards the enemy? I would say not to judge by the face and yet…

    But even if we do grant PL a freedom-loving and beautiful Richard is this Richard she is speaking about or the necessarily imperfect bust of Richard III? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com Hoping that there are some facial reconstruction experts out there to give us some answers.

    ‘Between the desire. And the spasm. Between the potency. And the existence. Between the essence. And the descent. Falls the Shadow’.


    23 Feb 2013: Documentary maker and author Christopher Hale writes: ‘I had the misfortune long ago to work on a dull BBC series called ‘Meet the Ancestors’ – which always climaxed with the presenter unveiling the face of the excavated ‘ancestor’ – hence the ‘meet’ part. But what was the meat of the meet? One had to be famous or infamous, as R3 is I suppose, to make this moment at all compelling. Oh so that’s what Attila the Hun looked like? As to the anonymous relics MtA dug up – one just thought – oh, that person looked like — a person!  R3 didn’t look much like Laurence Olivier. The R3 bust was similarly anti climactic. The face was uninteresting compared to the spinal bones. You put your finger on the problem. The reconstructed faces are abstracts – stripped of the wear and tear of personal experience. Imagine a facial recon of WH Auden! You can read whatever you want into R3’s face – because it is merely a sketch of a human being.’  Next up is TB who writes: First , the whole story is truly fantastic : I presume you have seen the Channel 4 programme about it ? I hope you can , even in Italy . Mad Ricardian enthusiast lady pays for excavation in carpark (and please believe me , I live in York , have met lots of them over many years, and they are a little mad. Nice, but mad . They resemble nothing so much as a religious cult , having reinvented R as a truly perfect medieval Prince). They open the hole, and there he is. Bang on , first time . She being a True Believer , the look on her face when his crookback becomes apparent, not to say bleeding obvious, is quite the best moment of an otherwise overlong and tedious programme. The reconstruction : Caroline Wilkinson , she of Dundee, does an entirely plausible job on the computer. She has been doing such things for years , for a whole series of archaeology programmes. But all of her reconstructions look somewhat like herself. : she has a rather striking face, with a short upper lip .This syndrome, which plagues all artists ( including me ) , needs a name.   Perhaps you can think one up…. Which supports your point about such reconstructions : they are largely subjective, however impressive the software.’ Finally, the Count: Regarding your comments about the not particularly menacing reconstructed face of Richard III, several things occur to me. Firstly, any face recreated in this way is automatically going to be in repose, so you’re seeing Richard at his most tranquil, as he might have looked in a peaceful sleep. Few people have such frightful faces that they appear forbidding in that condition! Secondly, where on earth do you get the idea that you can instantly identify a villain because he looks like one? (Apart from Jimmy Saville, obviously – did anybody ever really like that guy and not find him incredibly creepy?) Obviously people like Hitler are most often photographed in full rhetorical mode ranting at a crowd, usually dressed in uniforms of their own design (as Billy Connolly pointed out, when your leader starts designing his own uniforms, you know you’re in serious trouble). But in pictures where he’s kissing babies or relaxing with his beloved dogs, he looks quite pleasant, if you ignore all the swastikas and the fact that he’s Hitler. George Orwell wrote an essay on the fact that if you didn’t know who Hitler was, you wouldn’t worry about him in the slightest. Stalin didn’t look particularly threatening either. I remember a news item just after the collapse of the Soviet Union about a reporter sent to do a human interest story about the first gay bar in St Petersburg. At a loss as to how to proceed, he decided that before going in, he’d assess how the locals were reacting to it by sitting on a bench across the road and observing the reactions of pedestrians (by the way, it wasn’t one of those hard-core gay bars that you can’t see into – it was a very tame one with the usual big pub windows). He noticed that the younger people glanced at it with mild curiosity or ignored it completely, but absolutely everybody older than about fifty did a huge double take and seemed genuinely disturbed, hurrying past with averted eyes or crossing the road to avoid it, even though nothing the slightest bit explicit was going on. After a while the pfennig dropped – most of the gay blokes had those moustaches that nowadays you have to have if you’re gay, but can’t have if you’re straight unless you’re Burt Reynolds. So everyone old enough to remember the bad old days was seeing a pub full of Stalins. Anyway, you’ve probably seen this before, but it seems that in the thirties some of Hitler’s detractors refused to accept that he hadn’t been visibly monstrous from birth, and published the notorious (but rather funny) Evil Nazi Baby photo!  Thanks to TB,Chris and the Count!

    24 Feb 2013: AB adds: Beach that looks about as much like Richard III as you’d look like you if your sprog said “Dad I’ve just freed up a load o’ space on the laptop by deleting that big file called ‘Bizarre History Blogs Feb through Dec 2013”. I’ve long been following this research since first encountering it reading Gorky Park. The Russian guy who first developed it based his methods on years of painstakingly replacing the subcutaneous tissue of skulls of executed criminals with plasticine ‘veins’ ‘muscle’ etc and then testing how close he got to the original by comparing the finished result with photos. What they currently do though’s the same as most of what passes for Science these days namely use algorithms based on theory to fill in 70% of the substrate then slap a face on top chosen from a bank of selected portraits with the result even if the skull’s clearly that of an Australian Aborigine and even the 70% substrate fails to contadict this if they decide it’s unlikely Aborigines could ever’ve reached South America but perfectly reasonable to believe mysterious superintelligent mystic boat people could’ve plonked a load o’ Inuits there then the skull gets an Inuit’s chops. I’ve also noticed they always add in extra beauty or ugliness goodness or evilness sluttiness or virginality etc according to what’s more or less likely to draw the attention of the press. Thanks AB!