Commenced in 1996, the skull portraits are an ongoing and evolving series of photographic works based on forensic x-ray radiographs of their subject's skulls. They question the function of portraiture, in particular the contribution a portrait can make to the ongoing legacy of the subject, even beyond their death.
The photographs contain layers of art historical and spiritual references including the Vanitas tradition in art and Buddhist philosophy. They both critique and celebrate the movement of Pop Art and offer subjects the opportunity to meditate upon their own mortality and the materialism of our society.
In addition to private commissions over the past twenty years by different characters which include art collectors, supermodels, artists, billionaires, royalty and celebrities, there have been 6 distinct series of portraits produced since 1996, each exploring a slightly different angle of the portraits' nature. These include the Celebrity Series, the Religious Subjects Series and the Spies Series.
The Historical Subjects Series are based on the actual forensic skull x-rays of some of the most famous and infamous subjects in history. These are subjects, who have already passed away and full frontal x-rays of them are in existance (either taken during their life or afterwards) and have been sourced especially for this series of portraits. These subjects include Pharoah Tutankhamun, Albert Einstein, Marilyn Monroe, Adolf Hitler and King Richard III of England. These works draw attention to the special facility of the skull portraits - to present a forensic record of the existence of the subject, the appearance of which is unaffected by whether the subject was alive or dead when the x-ray exposure was taken.
There is a different story behind how each subject has become a skull portrait. The portraits have been widely exhibited and presented in numerous private collections and publications internationally.
Tarnya Cooper, Chief Curator, National Portrait Gallery London, wrote, “Looking at the heads as a set, we realize that should we learn to read these images, these reflections could easily be as distinctive as conventional portraits. These images are memorials before death, not designed to service the soul on a journey elsewhere but in part to awaken our sense to our own living corporeality. They do not record loss but reveal life. Each head representing an unveiling of human form and uniquely informing the subject of their internal self, while allowing the viewer a certain level of contemplation without the pathos of earlier vanitas. In this sense these works act as a celebration of existence while simultaneously questioning the value of worldly endeavour by providing a view of the unseen, the potential remnant of our physical being. This emotive dynamic between the commemoration of lives and the unseen physicality of the skull is part of the draw of this set of work” (1999).
Melanie McGrath, author, writing about the British Spies Series, wrote, "Like altarpieces, their renderings of physical mortality are allied with a spiritual consciousness, a hint at the immortality of the soul. The idea represented in both is of mysteries implied but not revealed, surfaces that are not simply surfaces but containers of ultimate significance" (2003).
Sarah Wilson, professor at The Courtauld Institute of Art wrote, "De Cadenet’s Skull Portraits re-energise the long histories of the painted vanitas….There is a ghoulish humour in de Cadenet’s jest with the skull image: these will persist, of course long after we become crematorium dust" (2010).
Edward Lucie-Smith, wrote, "The Skull Portrait series takes as its basic premise the idea that the only image of a particular person that can be absolutely guaranteed to tell the truth and but the truth is an x-ray showing the subject's skull" (2016).