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Needful things? Life masks to be taken at face value

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Marlon Brando

Marlon Brando

Hitchcock

Hitchcock

Jack Nicholson created for Batman

Jack Nicholson created for Batman

Bowie

Bowie

Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee

Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee

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Marlon Brando

There's a shop on Dublin's Aungier Street called Needful Things. Be afraid. The shop takes its name from Stephen King's 1991 novel. In the book, the villainous Leland Gaunt opens a knick-knack shop in the quiet town of Castle Rock, Maine. It's called Needful Things.

Here, he sells attractive oddments for extremely low prices, on condition that the buyer plays a minor prank on their neighbours in return. It so happens that the shop contains something that each of the townsfolk would give their right eye for. The plot unfolds and deep, dark mischief is revealed. The deal, basically, is that Gaunt is selling people worthless junk in return for their souls. Consumerism really.

Needful Things, Dublin, opened in 2018 with the innocent intention of selling second-hand books, film memorabilia, and a scattering of serious antiques. "My daughter wanted me to call it 'This is a Bookshop', says its owner, John Mc Geever. "But I thought that we could do better than that." He occasionally finds customers trembling fearfully in the doorway. Sometimes it's because they get the Stephen King reference but, these days, they're more likely to be Rick and Morty fans. A 2014 episode of the animated sci-fi sitcom includes a shop called Needful Things, run by the devil. You can buy what you think you've always wanted, but you'll always get more than you bargained for. Cue maniacal laughter.

For customers, one of the draws of Needful Things (the real life version) is a collection of life masks (from €65 to €150). Life masks are casts of people's faces. They look like death masks, only they are made when their subjects are still alive. Most are made during film production to help make-up artists create prostheses - as collectables they come under the category of movie props - but life masks were also made historically. Abraham Lincoln had two life masks made, five years apart. The first was made in 1860 by the sculptor Leonard Volk. Lincoln described the process as "anything but agreeable" but the life mask has informed nearly all of Lincoln's portraits and is considered to give a better impression of what he actually looked like than early photographs.

Around 1812, the sculptor Franz Klein was commissioned to make a life mask of Beethoven. The process nearly suffocated the composer but Klein used the mask as the basis of his famous bust of Beethoven. The hair, eyes and clothes are an artist's impression but the face is drawn from the mask which has largely shaped how we now imagine Beethoven to be. There is a replica of Beethoven's life mask (€80) in Needful Things with no particular claims about how close it is to the original.

With life masks, authenticity is a moveable feast. All are reproductions from the original negative mould. Some are limited editions and come with a certificate of authenticity (COA). Others are copies of copies. And copies of copies of copies. "About six or seven removes from the original they begin to lose quality," Mc Geever explains.

One of the most famous creators of Hollywood life casts is William Forsche who sells authenticated reproductions of his work online. A wall-hanging life mask of David Bowie with Aladdin Sane makeup by Forsche costs $499.95 plus $85 shipping charges (or around €536 in total).

The original mould was not made by Forsche - it was taken when Bowie made the film The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) - but Forsche undertook the casting and retrofitted it with the make-up from Aladdin Sane. Bowie's face was also cast as a make-up tester for the 1983 film, The Hunger, and the cast reproduced in a limited edition of 300 by the sculptor Nicholas Boxall.

They were sold new by the Victoria & Albert Museum for £125 (around €150) and will probably emerge on the second-hand market before long. The original version of this mask that was actually used for testing make-up sold at Ewbank's entertainment and memorabilia auction in Surrey for £1,800 (around €2,152) in 2016.

"Some people love life masks and some people hate them," Mc Geever says. "There are those who wouldn't want to wake up and see James Cagney staring down at them, but when we put him in the window he really draws people into the shop." So does Jack Nicholson's grinning mask, created for Batman in 1989. It looks like something that would give some small child nightmares. The other major attraction is a replica of the ventriloquist doll from the 1978 film Magic, in which Anthony Hopkins plays Corky, a schizophrenic ventriloquist who believes his dummy Fats is about to come alive and take over the act. Mc Geever has it rigged up with hidden strings so he can move its eyes and jaw to frighten the tourists. Believe me it works.

All the life masks in Needful Things come from a single collection. They are replicas, cast in resin, and make no claims as to their origins. The collector wasn't particularly bothered about authenticity - he was coming at it as a movie buff with an interest in life masks.

At home, he filled a wall with them. His favourite was the Hitchcock life mask, but more because of the quality of his films than the beauty of the object.

Hitchcock was a legendary director but not much of a looker and his mask is a good likeness. It costs €65.

And a little bit of your soul.

You'll find Needful Things Dublin at 3 Aungier Street, Dublin 2, and on Facebook. See also forschedesign.com.

Indo Property