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Now we can see his face: the next step of the Richard III discovery story

Facial reconstruction is based on the skull found under a car park in Leicester
  • @SteveAConnor

The “face” of King Richard III has finally emerged more than 500 years after his death at the hands of Henry Tudor’s army thanks to advanced computer scanning, fancy wax modelling and a little bit of artistic licence.

The facial reconstruction is based on the skull found under a car park in Leicester and was put together by Caroline Wilkinson, professor of craniofacial identification at Dundee University, an expert in building up three-dimensional fleshy models based on bone structure.

All known portraits of Richard III were painted after his death and do not show him in a particularly flattering light, which suited the Tudor’s dynasty’s portrayal of him as one of the great villains of history.

Professor Wilkinson made the model by first digitising a three-dimensional image of the complete skull and using the bone structure to estimate the thickness of the various layers of soft tissues which make up the face.

“This depiction may allow us to see the King in a different light. His facial structure was produced using a scientific approach, based on anatomical assessment and interpretation, and a 3-D replication process known as stereolithography,” Professor Wilkinson said.

“The final head was painted and textured with glass eyes and a wig, using the portraits as reference, to create a realistic and regal appearance,” she added.

While the colour of eyes and hair may not be precise, the overall structure of the face should be fairly accurate and recognisable to anyone who knew him. Many of Richard’s rear molar teeth for instance were missing at the time of his death, giving him slightly hollow cheeks.

Artist Janice Aitken, a lecturer at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design in Dundee, said: “My part in the process was to paint the 3-D replica of the head and was purely interpretive rather than scientific. …I drew on my experience in portrait painting, using a combination of historical and contemporary references to create a finished surface texture.”
Many of the later portraits of Richard showed him with narrowed eyes and a rather mean face, with one shoulder higher than another, a physical deformity that at the time was linked with malevolence.

“All the surviving portraits of him – even the very later ones with humped backs and things which were obviously later additions – facially are quite similar [to each other] so it has always been assumed that they were based on a contemporary portrait painted in his lifetime or possibly several portraits painted in his lifetime,” said historian and author John Ashdown-Hill.

The facial reconstruction shows him more as he was, say his admirers. “It’s an interesting face, younger and fuller than we have been used to seeing, less careworn, and with the hint of a smile,” said Phil Stone, chairman of the Richard III Society, which commissioned the reconstruction and is trying to rehabilitate the “perfidious” king’s reputation.

An investigation of his skeleton found that he was 5ft 8ins tall, slightly above average height for the time, and had a slender, almost feminine build. Although he suffered from scoliosis, a severe curvature of the spine, he was active in military affairs and was in fact the last English king to die in battle.

The skeleton in the car park has been subjected to a series of rigorous tests which, together with the location of the grave in the choir of Grey Friars’ church in Leicester, lend powerful support to the belief that it really is the last remains of the dead king.

The plan is to reinter the last Plantagenet king in Leicester Cathedral, which is a short distance away from his last grave site. The Cathedral is currently considering the request but is expected to approve it later this year.

Click here to listen to how Richard III might have sounded