The skull in the study

I’m sitting at my desk in Suffolk, away from the usual sirens and shouts of south London. Since I’m not often sitting at this desk, I’m concentrating on the things that I’ve placed on it to inspire me. Although proper countryside is not far from my window, I still seem to have imported objects from the natural world: a ceramic dish of small chalk-white snail shells gathered on a walk in Spain; a larger wooden bowl filled with a variety of shells of all colours and patterns (from a Victorian collection that was, until I freed them, packed away in a little leather briefcase – some of the shells still have their Latin names inscribed in a neat hand on tiny labels); and a sheep’s skull discovered on the beach at Mersehead in Scotland.

The skull is the size of my hand, so it is almost certainly a lamb’s; the lamb probably became separated from its mother and ended up on the wrong side of the fence. When I found the skull, there was no trace of the rest of the lamb; it was already stripped, bleached, already another sort of form than the frame for the animal’s head it carried. It still has a perfect row of teeth in its upper jaw, two evenly round sockets where its eyes once were.

I think it’s beautiful. That’s why I have placed it here, because it’s beautiful. Why do I think it’s beautiful, this symbol of death? Why do we put things on our desks to remind us of death, when the birds are outside the window and people are getting on with the business of living?

I remember seeing Masaccio’s amazing Holy Trinity fresco for Santa Maria Novella in Florence when I was 19 or 20. What was striking about it was not the depiction of the crucifixion, although the lessons of perspective and the Golden Section were fresh in my head from Dr Forte’s art history class, but the painted cadaver tomb below, made to look as if it was part of the fabric of the church (just another one of Masaccio’s perspective tricks) with the skeleton lying not in the tomb, but on top of it, with an epigram which translates: ‘I was once what you are, and what I am you will become’.

That epigraph has stayed with me, and perhaps has formed me in some way. It’s my belief that most people who create art have an unhealthy preoccupation with death. We have such a short time to make a statement. Ars longa, vita brevis. What you bring into the world, what you make, lives after you, as Billy Collins says at the beginning of his poem, Momento Mori (by way of explaining why he doesn’t have a skull on his desk):

There is no need for me to keep a skull on my desk,
to stand with one foot up on the ruins of Rome,
or wear a locket with the sliver of a saint’s bone.

It is enough to realize that every common object
in this sunny little room will outlive me—
the carpet, radio, bookstand and rocker.

Strangely, there is something comforting in that (maybe it’s the addition of the word ‘sunny’), and something life-affirming about my little lamb’s skull, a symbol of our own mortality, but hard, durable, enduring, and yes, beautiful.

I’ll end on these lines, the first stanza of Carol Ann Duffy’s poem Small Female Skull

With some surprise, I balance my small female skull in my hands.
What is it like? An ocarina? Blow in its eye.
It cannot cry, holds its breath only as long as I exhale,
mildly alarmed now, into the hole where the nose was,
press my ear to its grin. A vanishing sigh.