Secrets of historic Nelson and Pitt effigies to be revealed using state-of-the-art technology

Posted on Thursday 4 May 2017
Westminster Abbey Effigies

Photo credit: Dean and Chapter of Westminister/Paul Grover

The wax-work heads of naval hero Horatio Nelson and Prime Minister William Pitt the Elder, which are over two hundred years old, have been scanned using the world’s most advanced radiology technology in a new collaboration between Westminster Abbey, Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust and King’s College London.

The project has brought together the UK's leading radiographers, conservation experts and medical data analysts to discover more about the structure and composition of the heads, which are part of the Abbey’s collection of historic wax funeral effigies currently undergoing conservation before they go back on display.

The heads were examined in the radiology department of St Thomas’ Hospital outside clinical hours on a cutting-edge Siemens SOMATOM Force Dual Source CT Scanner, which only a few centres in the UK have. The scanner is used on more than 5,000 patients each year at St Thomas’, including heart and cancer patients. It is one of the fastest scanners available and can provide detailed, high-quality images while also delivering lower doses of radiation to patients. 

Dr Ronak Rajani, consultant cardiologist in cardiac imaging at Guy’s and St Thomas’, said: “Our high-tech scanner is used on a daily basis to diagnose and monitor patients so it was a very different experience to use it to examine wax effigies which are hundreds of years old. Radiographer Dan Hodson and I were honoured to be a part of this exciting project and we hope that the findings from the scans can shed light on how these unique wax works were made.

Dr Susan Jenkins, Curator, Westminster Abbey said: “We are delighted to collaborate on this ‘arts-meets-science’ project. This use of state-of-the-art technologies with non-invasive techniques provides new information about how these historic objects were made. This research contributes to our understanding of the rich past-life of these important objects.”

The results of the scan will be analysed by Professor Kawal Rhode and Bill Edwards, fromKing’s College London, and the findings released later this year.

Westminster Abbey has an important collection of funeral effigies, dating from the death of King Edward III in 1377. They were originally made to lie on top of the coffin, dressed in ceremonial clothes, to represent the dead monarch lying beneath. The Abbey’s earliest wax effigy is Charles II (died 1685), whose hand has also been scanned in this collaboration. The lifelike wax head of William Pitt, was one of the last to be made by Patience Wright, the American wax sculptor who was as celebrated in her day as Madame Tussaud.

Nelson’s wax head was made during his lifetime and acquired by the Abbey as a tourist attraction after his death. His lover, Lady Emma Hamilton, thought that it was so lifelike that she apparently arranged a lock of the hair as he always wore it. 

Both effigies will form part of the display in a new museum and gallery at Westminster Abbey: The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Galleries, which opens in 2018.  

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