Nick Reynolds: Art, Death and Music

To sum up the life of Nick Reynolds in one word is – after reading this you’ll surely appreciate – almost impossible. Yet one does spring to mind throughout: extraordinary.

Meeting in his North London flat-cum-temporary studio we cover every conceivable topic: from politics and criminals -“the Krays were supplying young boys for Lord Boothby… this would have embarrassed the Government so it gave them a lot of power” – to ancient Egypt – “you can’t make a 60ft granite sculpture of somebody with a polished finish by just hitting it with a rock” – music – “I was in a pop group in the 90s called Octopus. We were known as the band who killed Brit Pop” – and death masks – “I just finished the guy that jumped off Beachy Head.

A cast of Buzz Aldrin’s foot. Note the indent on his little toe: “he refused to take his blister plaster off.”

This variety of such ostensibly unconnected topics would otherwise seem unbelievable over the course of a two-hour conversation. Yet, when you take into account the fact that Nick Reynold’s father was the notorious ringleader of The Great Train Robbery of 1963 – and as a result, spending the first 7 years of his life on the run in Mexico – an ordinary life would never have been on the cards.

I originally contacted Nick to talk about his work as an artist, more specifically, as one of the last artists to specialise in the dying art of death masks (excuse the pun.)

“I’ve always been really fascinated by death masks since I saw my first one when I was on a school trip in Warwick castle… there I was staring at Oliver Cromwell’s face as he really was like 350 years ago, and I was just like, bloody hell! It’s as if he had just died and turned to plaster and someone just sawed his face off and put it in a box.

An ancient art form, death masks were considered receptacles in which the soul of the deceased could reside when called upon by honouring-relatives. The walls of noble Romans would be lined with masks of their ancestors who would call upon their animis, their soul, for advice or protection. Later, these masks were more commonly made as a rather macabre tourist attraction; freshly-beheaded criminals would have their faces cast in wax to be displayed in public as a warning, and more famous faces (indeed, Madame Tussaud began her career at the gallows during the French Revolution, the head of Marie Antoinette one of her most popular), would have punters pay to come and gawp at their contorted death snarls.

A recent client

For Nick and his clients, however, it is more about bringing a sense of peace to those left behind: “the death mask isn’t the marker of tragedy, it as more of a celebration of someone who’s had a good life, has had a good innings…it’s a solid testament to a unique individual, every little wrinkle can be a repository for a thousand memories.” Indeed, Nick’s own father, the notorious Bruce Reynolds, has such a mask – made, of course, by his son – adorning his grave in Highgate Cemetery (as well as a copy that sits atop his TV unit alongside his mate and “colleague” Ronnie Biggs), a man whose innings were both long, and compelling.

The death mask isn’t the marker of tragedy, it as more of a celebration of someone who’s had a good life, has had a good innings.

It was in fact his father who planted the seed for his son’s change in career;

“I was with my Dad and we were watching the funeral of Ronnie Kray [on the TV] and I said “Dad, look at this section in this book on death masks”… and he said “well you should have done Ronnie Kray. It would have been worth a fortune and you could have sold it to all the idiots out there who are into the Krays.”

Through his father’s connections Nick’s access to the criminal underworld gave him more than his choice of subject matter for his first joint blockbuster exhibition in 1999 ‘Cons to Icons’, where he got to showcase his talent as a sculptor and present his first series of casts of characters such as Freddie ‘Brown Bread Fred’ Foreman and Howard Marks (AKA Mr Nice.)

10 years down the line, what had started as more of a celebratory art has become somewhat of an emotional strain, his clientele now comprising of more tragic in memoriam; “I pulled the blanket off the body [in the morgue] expecting to see some middle-aged person, but there was a 15 year old girl. I had to put the cover back on and go outside for a few minutes as I just thought, f**k, I wasn’t prepared for that.

When you take into account the intimacy involved in the creation of these masks – from rubbing the Vaseline into the eyebrows and hairline to stop the algenate formula from sticking to the hair, to having to hold the body down when pulling the mould off (“I have to shake the body quite vigorously, and the head”) – there are even more less savoury aspects to the art form which are, over time, psychologically difficult to deal with;

“…when I get to them, unfortunately, they’ve been dead for about a week…they’ve undergone the embalming process, they’ve been laying on their back…the majority of the features are there but what is there is grossly distorted, particularly all the weight from the cheeks which will drop around the jaw line and give you jowls. Anything that’s watery like lips or eyes, they shrink. The nose generally distorts, either usually bending to the left or right once the cartilage shrinks on it. And also because they’ve been pumped up under pressure on the thing, they can be a little bit bloated from the pressure of the embalming fluid.”

F**k, I wasn’t prepared for that

An element of artistic license is required in these circumstances.

We speak at length about the intricacies and delicacies of the death mask making process, from the morgue to the studio, before we hit upon a topic clearly much closer to his heart: music.

Joining the Navy as a teen to work as a diver and electronic weapons engineer, the realities of life on board were a far cry from the allure of exotic heroism; “when you’re in the Navy there’s not much to do apart from play bingo or go to the gym or run aimlessly around the deck in circles. It’s really quite boring, so I took up playing the harmonica to just kill a bit of time.

A chance meeting with a fellow sailor, an avid guitarist and “a bit of a punk rocker with an attitude who I thought was pretty cool”, led to Nick forming his first band, the two persuading local bars in whatever Port they ended up in to let them play “and we’d play for nothing, just booze, and we’d bring all our mates down from the ship.

Leaving the Navy after nearly 8 years and one tour of the Falklands, Nick fell in with the Bohemian crowd of Little Venice back in London, playing with members of the 60s band The Pretty Things, Dave Gilmour (Pink Floyd), Ian Stewart (“one of the original Rolling Stones members who was kicked out the band, but kept on as tour manager”), and the drummer from King Crimson among many other characters. The upper floor of The Bridgehouse pub became their gathering place, owned – ironically –  by the ex-head of the CID. It was during this time also that he started getting into art, making abstract sculptures and learning how to make casts.

Music is still a massive part of Reynold’s life.

Well, you woke up this morning
Got yourself a gun
Your mama always said you’d be the chosen one

These are of course the opening lines to the theme song of The Soprano’s, written by Reynold’s band, Alabama 3, with whom he still tours; “the lead singer looks like a living death mask for sure!”

Of all his achievements and careers none seem to have brought him peace, an innate restlessness pervading throughout every tale (“I get bored incredibly easily”). I ask if his childhood on the run, having to assume various personas and back stories to evade capture, had caused this constant restlessness and change in direction, maybe always being on the run from himself and the real world:

“Oh definitely without a doubt. I can’t sit still for more than 5 minutes. The moment I learn how to do something… once the mystery of how to do it has gone, I find having to repeat myself difficult. I’m a restless spirit as my Dad was. I grew up on the run… constantly moving around, changing identities, different names, different stories… I find it hard to settle down and quite hard to be happy with my lot just doing one thing, I need constant change.”

Nick, with a copy of his father’s death mask. It lives on top of his TV unit – next to Ronnie Biggs – and he talks to them daily.

Music goes some way in achieving this, although the constant waiting between gigs, and even during set up, leaves Reynolds bored and wanting more. He produces films as yet another way to keep him occupied, his next project being a documentary on Brian Jones, a founding member of the Rolling Stones who was found dead in his pool 50 years ago. One thing that has remained consistent in his life, however, is his love for his father; “it’s a funny thing… my Dad and his mob inadvertently became folk heroes…

They had a code of honour and all that b****cks.

There has been a pervading fascination with the criminal underworld of the 1960s/70s, conjuring up images of the Gentleman thief, the Italian Job, quaint British crimes where “they had a code of honour and all that b****cks.” The era produced some of the most notorious characters to be kept at her Majesty’s pleasure; Peter Scott, also known as ‘The Human Fly’ and the ‘King of Cat Burglars’ is said to have stolen £30m worth of valuables from the rich and famous throughout the height of his crime spree; ‘Mad’ Frankie Fraser was certified insane three times, spent 41 years in prison, and was known as ‘The Dentist’ due to his penchant for using gold-plated pliers to “extract” the teeth of his enemies; then there was, of course, Bruce Reynolds and his gang.

“My Dad was a thief. He was against violence, he said [violence] was inefficient. He wasn’t really into the money, he was into the thrill of it and taking from people who he didn’t think deserved it… A lot of robberies my Dad did, he was put up to by the Police for kick back. You know, it was a very fine line between the Police and the villains back then in the 60s. They all used to drink together in The Star pub!”

Bruce Reynold’s grave – complete with death mask – in Highgate Cemetery

Although the harsh 30-year sentences handed to the gang – at the time a murderer would have received 25 – led to a rise in violent robbery, there is a certain look of pride as Nick regales stories of his Dad; “my Dad was one of the 10 most wanted men in the world!

In a rather apt end, we discussed British attitudes towards aging and death (“everyone’s obsessed with perfection, they don’t want to know that they’re going to die”) I ask if Nick would have a death mask made of himself:

“Oh I’ve already had myself done full size as Jesus Christ with a vagina for the wound in my side. I did it years ago. A friend of mine said “best get yourself done while you’re young, no one wants to look at you when you’re old and horrible.” I want to try and slip that into Highgate behind my Mum and Dad’s [grave]. I might have to disguise the vagina. Although, that might be trying to go a little bit too far.”