Phrenology head

Phrenology head

Materials: glazed ceramic
Dimensions: 22 centimeters high
Place acquired: junk shop, north London
Place of manufacture:  unknown

This phrenology head stands nine inches tall and is made from cream-coloured ceramic that has been transfer-printed in black and blue and fired with a clear glaze. The features of the face are bland and serene, the high cranium giving it a tactile quality. Despite its Victorian-style graphics this object is a modern reproduction. In fact few nineteenth century originals were ever made. But the phrenology head has become a popular decorative item today. The marketing of them clings to the illusion of them being old – they are still chiefly found on bric-a-brac stalls and in antique shops – but they are all modern copies. They make striking ornaments though, with their vague associations to quaint Victorian science, overlaid with hints of more modern ideas like psychoanalysis, theories of mind and the intellectual self.

Phrenology emerged around the turn of the ninteenth century and it claimed to be able to read a person’s mental characteristics and personality by the external shape and feel of their head. The theory was that a person's head shape grew to accommodate the brain development inside. It became a popular craze through much of the early nineteenth century, akin to mesmerism or clairvoyance. People would gather for lectures and ‘head readings’ by itinerant practitioners. Lorenzo Fowler, who’s name is prominently displayed on three sides of my phrenology head, was an american entrepreneur and phrenology practitioner who toured Britain in the 1860s and created a late wave of interest in phrenology. It is his heads, with their bombastic self-promotional style, that are the ones copied and sold today.

But phrenology also took itself very seriously as a radical new branch of science, and this had a darker side to it. Its claim was that it could not only read an individual’s character through the examination of a living person’s head, but could provide a generic assessmant of human ‘races’ and their characteristics through a study of skulls and living heads from different ethnic groups. It created an elaborate scale of human intelligence and value, with the white, north european ‘race’ at the top. It contributed greatly to the scientific racism that was becoming the dominant justification at the time for both slavery and colonial exploitation. 

On the back of my ceramic head Lorenzo Fowler states that he has prepared a bust ‘of superior form’ on which to mark his mental divisions. By this of course he meant the head of a white european.