Go back to article: Coming home - Bally’s miniature phrenological specimens

Mr William Bally, artist

William Bally was born in Locarno, Switzerland in 1796 (anon., 1858b). It is widely acknowledged that he travelled with the phrenologist Johann Gaspar Spurzheim between 1829 and 1831. Spurzheim had been a pupil of Franz Joseph Gall, before he travelled to England in 1813, and lectured on tour between 1814 and 1831 (Cooter, 1989, p 310). The Phrenological Journal and Miscellany reported in 1832 that ‘Mr William Bally, artist’ had produced a set of 60 phrenological specimens under the direction of Spurzheim (anon., 1832; see also Love, 1839, p 119). The busts were each ‘about three inches high’, and were accompanied by a printed description prepared by Dr Spurzheim. The busts were thus a collaboration between the two men: Bally as the artist, Spurzheim the phrenologist.

On examination now, each of the busts is around 7.5 cm tall by 3.5 cm wide, with a depth of about 4 cm, depending on the size of the head and nose. They are made of solid plaster, and were probably finished with an animal glue or rabbit skin size (or wash), traces of which are found around the eyes, nose and ears of some of the busts (see Figure 2). There are brush marks on the surface of the plaster, suggesting that a smooth and blemish-free finish was not required (see Figure 3). Each bust is marked with its number in the sequence, from 1 to 60, scored into the reverse. Bust 1 also carries the identifying inscription ‘By Wm Bally 1832’ on its reverse (see Figure 4). Many have a shiny dot of pigment on the back of the head – at the point at which it makes contact with the wooden box – perhaps a shellac polish from a previous box.

Figure 2

Side view of miniature phrenology bust

Traces of animal glue around eyes, nose and ears

Figure 3

Side view of miniature phrenology bust showing brush marks

Brush marks around the eye

Figure 4

Reverse view of miniature phrenology bust showing inscription

Inscription on reverse of bust 1 - 'By Wm Bally 1832’ 

The busts were probably scaled down from plaster casts of the head, or profile drawings made by pantograph. Bally’s technique for making a cast of the head was described in 1845:

‘The person is made to recline on his back, at an angle of about 35 degrees, upon a seat ingeniously adapted to the purpose. The hair and face being anointed with a little pure scented oil, the plaster is laid carefully upon the nose, mouth, eyes, and forehead, in such a way as to avoid distorting the features ... The plaster is then applied to the parts of the head still uncovered, and soon afterwards the mould is hard enough to be removed in three pieces ... We greatly admired the skill and quickness with which Mr Bally performed the operation.’ (anon., 1845b, p 98)

Casts could be made from life – in which case a hole was left for the subject to breathe – or postmortem as death masks. Some of the specimens in the set have their eyes closed, some open – which might suggest those made from life, and those from death masks. Number 8 is the only bust to have teeth showing. Numbers 24 to 27 have moustaches and beards (Figure 5).

Figure 5

Miniature phrenology bust with moustache and beard

Bust of a man with beard

We know that Bally was making casts in the early 1830s because he published Mons. Bally’s Lectures on Casting, Modelling, &c. in around 1833 (Bally, c. 1833). Taking a cast of the head from a living subject, ‘so as to form a mould, preparatory to building a bust in plaster’ was the third in Bally’s series of five lectures (ibid., p 6). Details of technique were not supplied in the eight-page booklet, however, since ‘they must be seen and carefully attended to, for the purpose of being fully understood’ – a means of generating a paying audience for his lectures (ibid., p 7). The series also covered the casting of medals and coins, fruit, leaves and flowers, and anatomical preparations, thereby appealing to antiquaries, ornamental plasterers and the medical profession. Contemporaries also stated that Bally made casts for Spurzheim (Edmondson, 1836, p 634).

The technique of making profile drawings by pantograph was well known to statuaries and stone masons (see this British Pathé film from 1935)[1].


Bally’s use of the pantograph is recorded in a review of an exhibition held at the Manchester Mechanics’ Institution in 1842–43, where for the price of one shilling he would take ‘phrenological outlines’ (anon., 1843a, p 16). He also employed the technique to produce outlines of criminals for phrenological comparison (anon., 1842).

As a sculptor, Bally receives entries in biographical dictionaries (such as Mapping Sculpture and the online database of the Henry Moore Institute), [2] and at least two of his portrait works can be traced. A small white wax portrait of John Scott, Earl of Eldon (and Lord Chancellor), is in the collections of the V&A[3] and a marble portrait bust of the Greater Manchester calico printer Salis Schwabe is located at the Old Grammar School, Middleton[4] But the production of the miniature phrenological heads in 1832 was the start of his career as a phrenologist.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/140102/008