An artistic reinterpretation of William Hunter

Special collections are traditionally used for University teaching and research, but in reality our clientele is a diverse lot. In recent years in particular, our books, manuscripts and archives have provided inspiration for a variety of creative endeavours. We have participated in events such as Culture Hack, and hosted seminars and classes that use ‘primary resources’ to spark off ideas for writing and poetry. Examining works from the past also proves to be fruitful for contemporary artists.

In the past few weeks, we have welcomed the visual artist and researcher Dr Jac Saorsa for a number of visits to explore the red chalk drawings created by the Netherlandish artist Jan van Rymsdyk (fl. 1740-1788) for William Hunter’s groundbreaking obstetrical atlas The Anatomy of the Human Gravid Uterus. Jac is currently a Visiting Fellow in the Medical Humanities Research Centre here at the University of Glasgow, working on a project entitled:

Speaking the Unspeakable: exploring the role of visual art in the expression and communication of obstetric and gynaecological health, from William Hunter’s The Anatomy of the Human Gravid Uterus, to the present.

Work in progress after Rymsdyk (Dr Jac Saorsa)

Work in progress after Rymsdyk (Dr Jac Saorsa)

As a working artist, Jac has been making drawings from Hunter’s specimens in the anatomy museum as well as from the drawings in Special Collections, and she has her own blog where she discusses her work. Her aim is “not to make slavish copies, but rather to use my own form of mark making and technique to respond to the work I have before me”.

Red Chalk drawing by Rymsdyk (MS Hunter 658)

Red Chalk drawing by Rymsdyk (MS Hunter 658)

Red Chalk drawing by Rymsdyk (MS Hunter 658)

Red Chalk drawing by Rymsdyk (MS Hunter 658)

Published in 1774, William Hunter’s The Anatomy of the human gravid uterus was the most famous and influential obstetrical atlas of its day. It represented the product of a quarter of a century of Hunter’s work. Concerned with presenting this anatomical work accurately, the best artists were employed for its illustrations. The book undoubtedly owes much to the skill of the draughtmanship of Rymsdyk who was responsible for most of the original drawings, from which engravings were made for the book’s thirty-four plates. Hunter, however, did not directly acknowledge Rymsdyk’s contribution in his publication (although he does refer in his preface to having found a ‘very able painter’ he seems to attribute the success of the project to his engravers) and it is thought that perhaps some ill feeling and bitterness had developed between the two men.

It was a real privilege to see some of Jac’s works in progress and also to chat about her reflections of working with the 18th century drawings. It was evident that she found examining all the original works an incredibly powerful experience. It was also fascinating to hear that as an artist herself, she was also able to detect when she felt that Hunter had rushed Rymsdyk in finishing individual drawings, or when he had been allowed more time to be expressive.

Although it may seem to be a long way off yet, events for the Hunterian Tercentenary in 2018 are at the early stages of planning. An exhibition of contemporary artwork that engages with books and objects from Hunter’s collections is one possible event. If so, you might be able to see some of Jac’s reinterpretations of Rymsdyk’s work for yourself. Watch this space!



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  1. Whewell's Ghost
  2. William Hunter’s Library: Transcribing the early catalogues – University of Glasgow Library

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