Jeremy Bentham's legacy included 200 boxes of papers, knitted smalls and himself. Negley Harte welcomes the return of the father of utilitarianism to UCL
There was no fanfare to mark Jeremy Bentham's return. Few, in fact, knew he had even been away. But for approaching two years, the philosopher's remains had not been on display in his usual place between the south cloisters and the provost's office at University College London.
His clothes were there, certainly. And the fine wax model of his head made soon after his death in 1832. Bentham's skeleton and mummified head, however, lay across the road in the conservation studio of the Institute of Archaeology.
Now the auto-icon (a term Bentham coined) is back. Although it must be said that he is not looking his best. One hundred and seventy-two years after his death aged 84, Bentham is beginning to look his age. The textile conservationists did not like his 1830s clothes to be padded out as roundly as they used to be, leaving him withered and sinking. He used to have a timelessly smug and rubicund air; now he appears as if he is finally approaching death.
The creator of the "greatest happiness of the greatest number" principle naturally believed that the dead should be made useful to the living. He would have loved to have carried a donor card. As it was, he left careful instructions about the fate of his body. His medical disciple, Thomas Southwood Smith, was to dissect his body while lecturing on its parts, and an auto-icon was to be created afterward.
In recent years, the auto-icon has enjoyed much attention and has been a source of many surprises. One of the more unusual emerged when, some 20 years ago, his clothes were taken to the Textile Conservation Centre, then an outpost of the Courtauld Institute at Hampton Court, where they were conserved and left a good deal cleaner than they would have been when he first put them on.
Bentham was found to be wearing knitted underpants. These later became common male underwear, but he was clearly way ahead of his time - most of his contemporaries just tucked the tails of their shirts between their legs. It is not widely known that the great philosopher of jurisprudence and ground-breaking social scientist was also a pioneer of pants.
And so, in the 1980s, Bentham's knitted underpants were photographed from every possible angle by a keen young researcher to accompany an article for the journal Textile History , with which I was then involved. Months later, I noted that the piece had not appeared. When I asked why, I was told that the woman in question had left the centre to get married. "Surely marriage and writing an article about Jeremy Bentham's underpants are not incompatible," I found myself saying. Yet the piece has still not been written. I do not know if the young woman is still married.
You cannot, of course, see Bentham's pants. In the 1830s and for many subsequent generations, the sight of underwear would have been quite unacceptable. But they are unquestionably there, underneath his loosely hanging clothes.
However, Bentham's mummified head, with its captivating blue glass eyes, is not. This is kept in a safe and ranks as perhaps the most unusual possession of any university in the world.
Until the Second World War, it was displayed in a box at the feet of the auto-icon. After the war, when the remains returned from their place of safety in the country to the badly bomb-damaged UCL, the head was abstracted and provided with its own box, specially designed by Sir Albert Richardson, the magnificently eccentric professor of architecture.
This accommodates the head in one of those glass domes in which Victorians liked to present squirrels or mongooses. It has to be unlocked by five keys, two of which have to be turned simultaneously. I know this because I have tried - and struggled - to do it. There is, I fear, a BBC Discovery film capturing my repeated attempts that eventually prompted Rosamund Cummings, the UCL records officer, to shout instructions through the door of her office. She had refused to be in the same room as the head and so had to despatch one of her temporary student assistants to help.
When we finally opened the box, it was evident that the head had fallen off its plastic support inside the glass dome. "You hold it up and I'll straighten the support," said the student. So I can claim to be one of the few people outside the conservation studio to have held the great man's head.
Some years previously, I had arranged for it to be shown during a lecture I gave at UCL to the Camden History Society. I stopped the slides, brought up the lights, and two beadles carried in the box, taking the top off with a dramatic flourish. The audience gasped at the bright blue eyes, the leathery skin and the wisps of hair.
Despite the fact that UCL is the proud owner of Bentham's body in two separate boxes, he was not, as is commonly supposed, the institution's founder. I have explained this to countless journalists but most merrily go on to describe him as such, as well as recounting as sober fact a host of stories that I always specify are apocryphal, such as the auto-icon attending college meetings and the head being used by rival students from King's College London as a football.
Bentham did not in fact leave his body to UCL - he left it to Southwood Smith. Nor did he leave his vast collection of unpublished papers to the university - he bequeathed them to his literary disciple John Bowring.
Bowring did some desultory editing of the papers, but eventually passed over 200 boxes of them to UCL in 1849. Little was done with the documents until 1959 when the current Bentham Project began the huge task of publishing them. Twenty-five massive volumes have appeared so far. It is estimated that a further 45 volumes are left.
In 1850 the auto-icon turned up. Southwood Smith was about to retire, and an enthusiastic Lord Brougham persuaded UCL to accept it.
While some of the words that Bentham invented caught on - "international" and "codify" are with us still - "auto-icon" never really did, despite his grand gesture. He wanted to render marble and stone statues obsolete, but he also wanted to demythologise the human body by showing the usefulness of providing cadavers for dissection by medical students. The traditional Christian objection to this practice was something he was keen to overcome; he expected it would now be recognised as a sensible form of progress.
In June 1832, Southwood Smith gave his lecture while dissecting his mentor's body - pale-faced but steady-handed - before Bentham's assembled friends at the Webb Street School of Anatomy. He later arranged to have the skeleton assembled with the head mummified and the auto-icon created.
There was an important practical point being made but there was also a great deal of self-indulgence. Bentham had made arrangements for 24 of his best friends, or disciples, as I have called them, to be presented with a specially designed signet ring containing his profile and a lock of his hair. It was suggested to them that they meet from time to time in the presence of the auto-icon to discuss ways of increasing the happiness of the greatest number.
The disciples who attended the dissection included many of what Bentham called "the association of liberals" who had founded the University of London six years earlier. Lord Brougham was certainly present, as were George Grote, John Stuart Mill and Francis Place.
Bentham himself spent £100 (more than twice a craftsman's annual salary at the time) to buy one share in the new institution. He played no more active role in the university than that. But his inspirational as well as physical presence lingers on.
Negley Harte is senior lecturer in economic history at University College London. The third edition of his history of UCL, written with John North, was published last year.