Anna Coleman Ladd was an American sculptor who gained international recognition for her work with severely disfigured soldiers after WWI. Since cosmetic surgery was only in its infancy, there were no good solutions for soldiers (and others) with irreparable facial disfigurements. They had to either hide away forever or endure the stares and comments they’d encounter on the street. It must have been a terribly lonely life for them. But this sensitive sculptor got the idea to make masks for these soldiers, giving them back at least some sense of normalcy.
In 1917, Ladd, a 40-something Boston socialite, moved to France with her doctor husband. Once there, she met the British sculptor Francis Derwent Wood who ran what was affectionately known as the “Tin Noses Shop.” Located within the 3rd London General Hospital, its proper name was the “Masks for Facial Disfigurement Department.” There, Wood and his staff created realistic face masks to cover disfigured soldiers’ scars. Inspired by Wood, Ladd opened her own “Studio for Portrait-Masks” and began working with soldiers in similar need. Previously, Ladd’s sculpture was mostly limited to half-hearted busts and decorative fountains featuring scrolls and nymphs and sprites. But once she discovered her true calling, she reported feeling joy in her art for the first time.
I first saw masks like hers on the HBO show Boardwalk Empire. There was a character, Richard Harrow, who wore a painted tin mask to help hide his disfigured face. Initially, I found the mask creepy and assumed it was pure fiction. But after doing a little research, I realized the masks were not only real but were also a great kindness to men otherwise afraid to be seen.
Incredibly, there’s video of Ladd at work. Below the video are some examples of her masks.