Jeremy Bentham's 'Auto-Icon' 1857

We were contacted by The Metropolitan Museum in New York to see whether we could assist in packing Jeremy Bentham’s ‘Auto-Icon’ which they had requested for loan from the collection of University College London.

Jeremy Bentham was a philosopher and social reformer who died in 1832 aged 84. In his will he bequeathed his body to his friend Dr. Thomas Southwood Smith and requested that it be dissected during a public lecture. After this Southwood Smith was to preserve the skeleton and Bentham’s head as his ‘Auto-Icon’, which would wear his clothes and sit in the chair where he usually sat. The skeleton was articulated using metal pins and wires to allow for movement comparable to the normal human range and there is also a steel armature inside to provide support. Southwood Smith had the figure displayed in his consulting rooms within a custom-made mahogany case with glass doors until it was eventually given to University College London in 1850, where it has since been on public display.

The figure is extremely fragile and would therefore be vulnerable to shock. The articulated nature of the skeleton also made it liable to be extremely mobile in transit. We worked closely with the staff in the UCL collection to design packing for the figure which would provide a bespoke padded support as well as a means of safely installing the body when it arrived in New York. The UCL conservators supervised safe packing of Bentham’s wax head, chair and accessories.

The body was supported lying down on an independently foam-loaded platform within the packing case to reduce the risk of shocks in transit. It was gently held in place on the platform using soft fabric straps to avoid putting too much pressure on the fragile skeleton. The platform was shaped to support the legs bent as if sitting, and it was L-shaped, which enabled the figure to be raised to his vertical seated position whilst still attached to the platform; the bandaging straps could then be removed so it could be safely handled onto the chair by the couriers. The specification was to have all sides of the case removable to allow full access to lift the platform out. 

The Auto-Icon was successfully couriered to New York, a city Bentham had always wanted to visit when he was alive, and it is now safely back in its original mahogany case in the main building in UCL.

With thanks to:

Allison Barone, Elyse Nelson and Kendra Roth at the Metropolitan Museum, New York.

Jayne Dunn and Emilia Kingham at the UCL collection, London.

Karl Bush, sculpture technician, for his assistance.

Sculpture  installation exhibitions services  artworks in transit 


Jeremy Bentham's 'Auto-Icon' 1857


The Metropolitan Museum New York


University College London, on loan to The Met Breuer, New York