Phrenological bust by LN FowlerPhrenological bust by LN FowlerThe History of Phrenology on the Web

by John van Wyhe

De Ville, James (1777-1846) [His name is also written Deville by historians but all 19th-century references and especially those published by De Ville himself are spelled as two words not one.]

James De Ville was born at Hammersmith on 12 March 1777 and died 6 May 1846 in London. His grandfather was from Bern Switzerland but emigrated to England along with other Protestants perhaps in the 1740s. De Ville's mother and maternal grandmother were English. Because his family fell into hard times De Ville was raised from the age of eight by a maternal uncle who had a brickmaking business in Hammersmith. From this age De Ville had no further formal schooling. After four or five years De Ville went to London and obtained the situation of assistant at the Edinburgh Castle Tavern in the Strand. He soon thereafter was apprenticed to a neighbouring Mr Harris, a statuary and worker in plaster of Paris. De Ville remained in this situation until the death of Harris in 1796. In 1797 De Ville married Jane Smith who carried on a retail business at home while De Ville worked as a journeyman moulder in plaster. They had five children. In 1803 he opened his own plaster works in Soho. This business soon prospered and he moved to a larger location at Leicester Square where he had eight employees. He then expanded into metal casting which led to his becoming a lampmaker. Some profitable contracts led to further success and he removed to the Strand in 1814 and in 1816 began making lamps for lighthouses. He became a member of the Institute of Civil Engineers and the Society of Arts, where he was elected chairman. One of the leaders of the Institute of Civil Engineers was Bryan Donkin who had attended Dr F.J. Gall's lectures in Vienna and was now one of J.G. Spurzheim's earliest disciples in Britain. Donkin encouraged De Ville to make phrenological plaster casts as records of phrenological science. De Ville was first employed by Donkin for this purpose in January 1817. About July 1817 De Ville began to take a personal interest in phrenology and to make a collection of phrenological specimens. In 1821 he began to take moulds from living subjects. He was taught how to recognize the phrenological regions of the head and to mark the organs by C.A. Tulk. In 1824 De Ville published a standardized plaster bust demonstrating the layout of the phrenological organs with an accompanying booklet. He founded along with John Elliotson and Donkin the London Phrenological Society in 1823 for which De Ville sometimes served as treasurer. In 1823 he went to Paris to invite Spurzheim to give a course of lectures in London at the Crown and Anchor Tavern in 1825. Having learnt from Spurzheim, De Ville then began the manipulation or reading of heads and to give private lectures in his museum-shop. De Ville's lectures on the subject were often ridiculed because of his working-class grammar and pronunciation. In 1826 he read the heads of forty-eight convicts on a ship bound for New South Wales and correctly predicted the dangers likely to arise during the voyage.

Thus De Ville became the most prominent practical phrenologist, supplier and maker of phrenological casts in London from the 1820s to the 1840s. By 1826 Spurzheim declared that De Ville's collection was the finest he had ever seen. Gall himself also highly valued De Ville's work and sent a wax mould of a dissected brain as a token of respect. De Ville's casts were distributed throughout the world and many still survive in the collection of the Edinburgh School of Anatomy.

In 1840 he became a member of the Phrenological Association and resigned in 1842 upon the occasion of the great split among British phrenologists when William Collins Engledue's speech before the Association announced that phrenology and materialism were the same.

De Ville examined an enormous number of heads including those of many well-known figures including John Elliotson, Hermann Prince of Pückler-Muskau, Harriet Martineau, Charles Bray, George Eliot, William Blake, Richard Dale Owen, Richard Carlile, the Duke of Wellington and Prince Albert.

At his death his phrenological collection consisted of 5450 specimens, 3000 of which were of non-human crania. About 200 of which were skulls the remainder of which were mostly original casts. Many of the skulls exemplified various human races. In 170 cases De Ville had taken subsequent life casts to demonstrate the change in the shape of heads during life. A manuscript catalogue of the entire collection existed at De Ville's death but was never published.


Outlines of Phrenology, as an accompaniment to the Phrenological Bust (1824).

Manual of Phrenology as an accompaniment to the Phrenological Bust (1826, 1828, 1831, 1841).

'Account of a number of cases in which a change had been produced on the form of the head by education and moral training-Phrenological Association, Glasgow', Phrenological Journal, 14 (1841) pp. 32-8.

Further reading

Browne, James P., 'Memoir of the late Mr James De Ville', Phrenological Journal, 19, 1846, pp. 329-344.

'Mr De Ville's Collection', Phrenological Journal, 14 (1841), pp. 19-23

Cooter, R., Phrenology in the British Isles: An Annotated, Historical Bibliography and Index (1989).

Pückler-Muskau, Briefe eines Verstorbenen: Ein fragmentarisches Tagebuch aus Deutschland, Holland, England, Wales, Irland und Frankreich, geschrieben in den Jahren 1826 bis 1829 (1830).

Simpson, J., 'Result of an Examination, by Mr. James Deville, of the Heads of 148 Convicts, on board the Convict Ship England, when about to sail for New South Wales in the Spring of 1826', Phrenological Journal, 4, 1826/7, pp. 467-71. Reprinted in R. Cox, Selections from the Phrenological Journal: comprising forty articles in the first five volumes, chiefly by George Combe, James Simpson and Dr. Andrew Combe (1836) pp. 140-3.

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