We are asked fairly regularly if items from Special Collections can be used in television programmes. Recently, the BBC filmed some of the beautiful 18th century red chalk drawings and engravings that William Hunter commissioned for his great work The Anatomy of the Human Gravid Uterus. This was for a major new series The Seven Ages of Britain which aims to tell the story of Britain through extraordinary objects and artworks.
Published in 1774, The Gravid Uterus charts the development of the embryo in the womb. For this, Hunter required “subjects” (ie. unfortunate women who had died in various stages of pregnancy) to dissect, study and draw. Most of the drawings were done by the Dutch artist Jan van Rymsdyk, who specialised in medical illustration. His work was then copied by a variety of artists to produce detailed engravings for publication. At the same time, Hunter had plaster casts made and specimens prepared from the cadavers for use in teaching. It took 24 years to produce the book.
The BBC were keen to show all the different processes that went into Hunter’s book. Therefore, filming took place in the University’s “atmospheric” Anatomy Museum, where the plaster casts and original specimens are still kept.
It took some time to set up filming in the cramped upper gallery of the Museum. The lighting was particularly challenging, thanks to the ubiquitous reflections from the glass cases that line the walls. Various cables were strewn about and curtains hung in awkward places to minimise light (I think it was the runner who got the job of going on to the roof to throw drapes over the skylights). Meanwhile, I spent a pleasant time chatting to the show’s presenter, David Dimbleby, showing him the drawings and book.
When the cameras were eventually ready to roll, it was fascinating to watch David swing into presentator mode and begin his commentary on our objects. Each small section was done again and again, and then the whole process was repeated in various mid shots and close ups. I was only slightly disconcerted when the director encouraged him to “flick through the pages” of our precious book, which was quickly amended to turning them with love and care.
After five hours, and just as the tea and biscuits arrived, I was ready to pack up our items and return them (none the worse for wear following their exciting experience, I am pleased to report) back to Special Collections.
All this was for a short piece that will probably appear in the screened programme for a few minutes only. However, it looks like this will be an interesting series (especially the 18th century episode, of course), so watch out for its transmission some time early next year.