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Portrait of Jonathan Swift by Charles Jervas [Image via Wikipedia]

Jonathan Swift died nearly 300 years ago, but his works continue to be as enjoyable now as they were in his own time. Most well known today for his book Gulliver’s Travels and essay A Modest Proposal, he is widely recognized as the premier English language prose satirist. During his lifetime, his works were published under a variety of pseudonyms such as Lemuel Gulliver and Isaac Bickerstaff, but he fooled no one and became so closely associated with deadpan irony that biting satire such as his has since become known as ‘Swiftian.’

Swift’s life was one that was often uprooted by political troubles, and this was exactly the case when he was forced to leave Ireland for England in 1688 by the Glorious Revolution that removed King James II of England and replaced him with William of Orange and his wife Mary. Swift went to London as the secretary and personal assistant of Sir William Temple where he installed himself in apartments at Moor Park. It was during his time at Moor Park that he met Esther Johnson, later nicknamed Stella, who, at the time, was only eight years old. The two became close as Swift was hired to be her tutor, they became friends and then, actually, it’s a trifle unclear exactly what the state of their relationship grew into.

Speculation abounds and includes rumors of a secret marriage, but as no one is really clear about why such a relationship would have needed to be kept from public knowledge, nothing certain has ever come of the idea. The two never lived together or acknowledged anything but an upright friendship, but their attachment to each other needs no stronger advocate than the fact that when Swift died seventeen years after Johnson, he was buried at her side, by his request. Whatever the true nature of their relationship, and it is quite possible that it will never be known, the intervening years have left people no less tantalized by their connection.

While there are several portraits of Swift in existence as well as a death mask, there are no such images of Esther, but that didn’t stop a team of forensic anthropologists from the Human Remains Services Ireland (HRSI) from attempting to create an image of what she may have looked like. The first step was to scan the skulls for both Swift and Johnson and have them 3D printed so that an artist could work with them. For this, they turned to Dr. Peter Knief, head of the Consultancy in Applied Research, Engineering, and Development (CARED) who captured the data from the bones and turned that into a pair of 3D printed skulls. The material for the print was provided by 3DOMFuel which created a bespoke filament that gave the skulls the feel of the original bone. The actual reconstructions were undertaken by Dr. Christopher Rynn, a craniofacial anthropologist and forensic artist from the University of Dundee.

Forensic sculptors, working back and forth between the images of Swift and current understanding of the way flesh and skin lay upon a skull structure were able to build up a pair of individual portraits of the couple, giving us a glimpse, for the first time, of what Swift’s muse may have looked like. It may seem strange for a project such as this to emanate from a department that generally devotes itself to the identification of unknown remains, but as consultant forensic anthropologist with HRSI Dr. René Gapert explained:

“We wanted to demonstrate the range of forensic techniques we use in actual cases. A goodly portion of HRSI’s work involves the identification of unknown human remains – and sometimes lives subjects also. While we have portraits and busts of Swift, this is the first time it has been possible to show what Stella may actually have looked like.”

While Swift as portrayed in a 1710 portrait by Irish artist Charles Jervas is decidedly homely, part of that may be due to his ridiculous wig and the somewhat stiff portrayal. The figure shown in the forensic recreations is aided both by its lifelike portrayal and the more easily digested hairdo. I would be hard pressed, in fact, to have even identified the one portrayal with the other, particularly in the mouth as the painted portrait shows an individual with quite full lips while the reconstruction gives a more British liplessness to the face.

[Image: HRSI]

Key to understanding this is that portraiture is always caught up in an artist’s interpretation. This is true as much as when it is approached as a science as when it is approached as art. Aspects of the face, such as the fullness of the lips, cannot be deduced from the skull and in death, one’s lips tend to become drier and tighter and so therefore may have been unduly influenced by the death mask. The argument that the portrait created during his lifetime is more true to life simply because the artist saw him denies the influence that contemporary styles and the desire to create a flattering image for the patron play in the creation of such portraits. If fuller lips were seen as desirable, they may have been exaggerated even if Swift were in life as lipless as a lizard.

Without any point of reference for Stella Johnson, it’s impossible to say how this initial portrayal may or may not differ from her actual physical state. What is certain is that by giving her a face, there is a new life for her memory and a new connection to be made with her as a person. If there’s any question as to how either of them would have felt about these latest attempts to revive them, I think we need look no further than the somewhat amused turn at the corners of their mouths.

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