On the face of it

This post is a deviation from the music hall theme although it covers entertainment and celebrity. The subject is Professor Annie Isabella Oppenheim who lived and worked in London for many years. I have two postcards of her and was keen to find out more about the pleasant looking woman in academic cap and gown who appears in the photographs. Limited research could find nothing of her early life except that she was possibly of Austrian heritage. There seems to have been no interest in her life outside the cause of her fame. Annie Oppenheim studied, as she called it, phreno-physiognomy or scientific character reading from the face.


In 1894 the ‘special commissioner’ from the St James’s Gazette described character reading as the modern equivalent of fortune-telling, but was impressed when meeting Professor Oppenheim in her Bond Street consulting rooms. To invoke scientific gravitas she received clients in her cap and gown and displayed a human skull in the inner sanctum. Keen to show the popularity of her subject, Annie shared the fact that she carried out around 9,000 consultations at a recent Earl’s Court Exhibition. She was at pains to say there was no typical customer but that they were male and female and came from all walks of life. Facial features were looked at one by one and interpreted according to their position, size and shape. She put forward the idea that hair was an animal matter and that bald-headed men were the most intellectual as they had ‘through the exertion of their brains exhausted all that is animal in their nature.’


The Bond Street rooms displayed portraits of her clients, many celebrities of the time, including Annie Oakley and Buffalo Bill. The latter was delighted with his consultation and featured her reading in the programmes for his show.


Annie Oppenheim did not confine herself to her consulting rooms and in August 1898 was in the coastal town of Eastbourne in Sussex. She ‘delineated’ various high profile Eastbournians and the newspaper reported gleefully ‘how striking some of her remarks were.’ She pointed out the Rev. W. Scott’s fondness for argument while the narrow-headed Duke of Devonshire was a man who looked at things more from his own point of view but with every intention of doing what was right. Mr Carew Davies Gilbert J.P. had a large brain and a good physique and was found to be fond of art and refinement.

Although she was serious about her work, Annie did not talk down to people and in 1895 gave an amusing lecture on ‘Noses’ and had an ‘eccentric’ assortment of noses on a screen to which she referred. She could be found at a Forestry Exhibition, a theatrical garden party or at a theatrical bazaar. The latter seems to have been a huge affair with theatrical celebrities signing photos and manning stalls such as ‘Sweets and Cocktails’ and ‘Penny in the slot’. There was a touch of the theatrical about the Oppenheim face readings with well considered costume and presentation.


Annie Oppenheim wrote two books on her subject between 1900 and 1910, Physiognomy made easy and The face and how to read it, which were well received. One reviewer wrote that ‘Inexact science will always be the most popular’. The books were for the amatuer physiognomist who was implored not to stare at an unwitting suspect and if that proved impossible then to consider photographs and portraits as a substitute for the living person. I discovered she was active for at least twenty years, fascinating and entertaining thousands of people in a lively and interesting way.

Thanks to the britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk, Monomania postcard collection,

The William F. Cody Archive, ‘Physiognomical Studies’ Professor Annie I. Oppenheim B.P.A. 22/1/2021 <http://codyarchive.org/texts/wfc.nsp12807.html&gt;


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