Petty France, Jeremy Bentham, and UCL’s amazing auto-icon

HoundsditchThis blog (and the book-in-progress with which it is associated) promises not just the derivations of London’s street names, but also the ‘rest of the story’: stories of the streets themselves, their residents, and famous (or infamous) people associated with them. So today we are going to look at Jeremy Bentham, who willed his skeleton and body to University College London to be be preserved and displayed.

Bentham, reformer anPetty France cropd philosopher, was born in Houndsditch, lived in Crutched Friars, and died in a house in what is now Petty France (another resident of Petty France was John Cleland, author of the 18th-century erotic novel Fanny Hill). He was a strong believer in the equality of women and a proponent of the theory of Classical Utilitarian, believing that moral virtue lay in the greatest good for the greatest number.

Commemorative_Plaque_to_Jeremy_Bentham_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1179188
Photo: commons.wikimedia.org

However, his strongest London links could be considered those with University College London, an establishment of which he is (wrongly) considered to be a founder. He was held in high esteem by the actual founders, and can be viewed as, according to UCL, its spiritual father.

auto-icon1
The auto-icon. Photo: UCL Bentham Project

But on to the amazing auto-icon: Betham willed (shortly before his death) that his body be dissected, and the skeleton preserved to form the basis of an ‘auto-icon’ upon which his mummified head would rest – the whole to be displayed at the University.

The mummification techniques those days were not up to scratch, and the result was not considered suitable for display. A wax head was created for the auto-icon, and Bentham’s own head, supposedly, rested at his feet for some time, later becoming the object of various pranks. Due to the sensitive nature of displaying human remains, the head was removed in 2002 and put into safe storage.

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Bentham’s head. Photo: UCL museums

To this day, Bentham sits at the end of the South Cloisters of the UCL campus, where he can be seen 8am-6pm Monday to Friday. Today was a particularly timely day for this particular blog post, as he was removed from his cabinet for inspection, and was available for member of the public to meet him.

For those unable to meet Mr Bentham in the flesh, the university has developed an amazing virtual auto-icon, which can be viewed here.

 

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