Currently on exhibition at the Hunterian Museum.

Earlier this year I was asked to write a caption to accompany an item from the Library of William Hunter, to be temporarily displayed as part of the Hunterian Museums permanent exhibition: William Hunter: Man, Medic and Collector.

Hunter’s Library is an impressive compendium of some 10,000 printed books and 650 manuscripts and is considered to be one of today’s finest surviving 18th century libraries.  With such a vast array of material to choose from I decided to explore the Library with my own background in mind: Art History.  The relationship between anatomists and artists is one that I have always found to be fascinating; particularly the absolute skill and fidelity shown by artists in producing accurate representations of the human form.

With an existing knowledge of such texts including Vesalius’ De Humani Corporis Fabrica Libri Septem (Basel 1543) (On the fabric of the human body in seven books) I used this as a starting point and discovered a similar item on our rare books catalogue which immediately caught my attention: François Tortebat‘s Abrégé d’anatomie, accommodé avx arts de peintvreFullSizeRender et de scvlptvre (Paris 1668) or ‘Abstract Anatomy, accommodated to the arts of painting and sculpture.’ (Sp Coll Hunterian Ay.2.21)
Abrégé is the key word in this title and informs the reader that it serves as a summarised synopsis of a longer work.  In this case it is an abridgement to the aforementioned 16th century work of Vesalius, perhaps one of the most influential anatomy books of the time.

Sp Coll Hunterian ay.2.21 currently on display at the Hunterian Museum.

This 17th century Abrégé was actually produced by Roger de Piles who used the pseudonym Tortebat, according to a statement in his final published work: Cours de Peinture Par Principes.
De Piles, a skilled painter, engraver and celebrated commentator of the arts would certainly make for a fascinating research project himself. Whilst working as the personal secretary to Michel Amelot de Gournay, the French Councillor of State, De Piles was imprisoned for four years in 1693 for his undercover involvement in confidential political missions using his work as a buyer for Louis XIV as a guise.  Following his release he was appointed to the high honour of Conseiller Honoraire to the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture in 1699.

Through adapting the original source material (Vesalius), De Piles was able to produce a book which aimed to facilitate and instruct artists wishing to accurately capture the human form.  The exhibited opening displays just one of the works impressive twelve copper plate engravings copied from De humani corporis fabrica, by Andreas Vesalius.

Whilst a very interesting item, it certainly wasn’t readily available for display.  Fortunately my colleague Sarah Graham, Conservation Exhibitions Intern, was able to perform the necessary repairs to the work prior to its display at the museum.  She kindly wrote the following regarding the conservation treatment;

Before the exhibition it was in quite a fragile condition, as the spine of the Hunter library binding had completely deteriorated and was no longer supporting the textblock. The pages themselves were very brittle, cockling and damaged by the tightly bound guards at the spine.

After discussion and advice from Louise Robertson ACR, it was decided that the binding should be removed and retained with the book in its storage box. The 17th century material could then be cleaned, washed, stabilised with infills and repairs to the paper and rebound.

The Hunter binding had two types of sewing; a long stitch which held the textblock to the binding and over sewing of the pages to keep them in three sections. It was the over sewing which was particularly harmful as it was tearing away at the edge of the page and preventing a sufficient opening for exhibition. The textblock and binding were dry cleaned twice and then the print and pencil were tested to see how they would respond to water. The pages were washed in batches and it took four baths to remove the ingrained dirt and reduce some of the staining. The old guards were adhered with animal glue which is water soluble and were easily peeled away in the water. The result was a brighter, stronger and less cockled page.

The lost paper at the corners and edge needed to be replaced with a similar weight Japanese paper. A sheet of conservation grade polyester was placed on top of the page and then the infill shape was needled out. A very thin, barely visible Japanese paper which is used to repair tears was adhered to the verso (reverse) and then the infill is adhered on top. A more appropriate guard was attached in a similar way to the left edge.


After the excess material had been trimmed back, the guards were folded and the textblock was put into three sections to reflect the sections which were originally over sewn. These were then sewn directly onto the cover material using a long stitch. This means the binding is adhesive free and can be released easily by cutting the outside stitching, should another method be preferred in the future.

The item will remain on display alongside Lanfranc of Milan: Practica, sive Ars Completa Totius Chirurgiae (Complete Art of Surgery) (MS Hunter 433 V.5.3) until August 2015 at the Hunterian Museum and keep up to date with Special Collections items currently on display on our website.

Look out for a second blog coming soon on Abrégé d’anatomie, accommodé aux arts de peinture et de sculpture. 

Categories: Library, Special Collections

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