A guest blogpost by Arden Hegele, PhD Candidate, English and Comparative Literature, Columbia University
During my recent visit to the University of Glasgow, I arrived at the Special Collections with a very clear motive: to find a report in the medical archives that described how an eighteenth-century anatomist would perform a postmortem dissection. I hoped that my visit would help to round out my most recent dissertation chapter on shared formal protocols among the Romantic epitaph, elegy, and autopsy report. The classroom notes from the lectures of William Hunter (1718-1783), Glasgow’s greatest anatomist, would surely be the place to find historical instructions on the mechanics of the autopsy – if such guidelines existed at all.
In my perusals of students’ notes from Hunter’s courses in anatomy between 1752 and 1781, I found not only the long-awaited report on the autopsy, but, even more intriguingly, details about how Hunter’s anatomical teachings intersected with art and even helped to set eighteenth-century standards of aesthetics.
To a Romanticist like me, it seemed natural that artists would study cadavers to produce realistic depictions of the human body: after all, William Blake attended lectures on anatomy at the Royal Academy Schools (commenting later that all drawing from life ‘smelled of mortality’), and John Keats’s friend Benjamin Robert Haydon performed dissections during his artistic training, before moving on to drawing the Elgin Marbles. But I’d never known how this Romantic-era association between the study of human pathology and the fine arts originated.
The Special Collections revealed that William Hunter was almost single-handedly responsible for aestheticising the cadaver during the Enlightenment. The lecture notes that I read spanned Hunter’s long career teaching medical students, and in each manuscript, he expresses a strong interest in turning short-lived anatomical specimens into lasting works of art, and encourages his students to do the same – that is, if they wish to ‘make a Figure in Surgery or Physic’ (MS Gen 702). The thousands of preserved specimens in Hunter’s collection, which are now lodged at the Hunterian Museum, reveal the anatomist’s personal investment in converting ephemeral biological tissues into indestructible objects de curiosité for the edification of his students and eventually the general public.
The act of preserving anatomical parts and making them artistic in Hunter’s day was called a ‘Preparation’, and, according to the notes kept by his students, there were two characteristic means of doing so: with injections (for the wet parts of the body, such as the internal organs) and with skeletons (for the dry parts – in other words, the bones). The professor was adamant that his students should become skilled in making preparations, and one note-taker from his class in 1768 transcribes his thoughts on the matter:
It is well known that nothing has contributed more to the advancement of anatomy than the art of investigating the parts by INJECTION [and] indeed so necessary it is, There is no making a good Practical Anatomist without being master of it. (MS Gen 769-772, vol. 3)
Making injections, it turns out, had much in common with painting, since practitioners employed the same materials to add colour to preserved membranes: the substances used in injected preparations included resin, yellow paint, turpentine, several types of varnish, and a vermilion dye (MS Gen 721, at 110). These artificial colours were added once the biological parts had first been ‘steeped in water a few Days’, and then ‘put into Spirit for keeping’, which would preserve them indefinitely (MS Gen 769-772, vol. 3).
In making the other kind of preparation, the skeleton, Hunter used two procedures based on whether the finished skeleton would be ‘Natural’ or ‘Artificial’: ‘Natural when their proper connecting Ligaments are preserved, & Artificial when the bones are join’d by some foreign substance as Whires & Screws, etc.’ (MS Gen 769-772, vol. 3). The production of both kinds of skeleton involved steeping the cadaver in lime water to remove its extraneous matter, and then, weeks or months later, exposing it to the air to ensure its proper colouration. Afterwards, Hunter explained, the skeleton should be ‘placed in its intended attitude & Dryed’, unless, for the natural skeleton, it was ‘intended to have all the natural motions’, in which case its joints should be exercised to ‘remain flexible’ (MS Gen 769-772, vol. 3). Though all this may seem rather ghoulish to the student of literature, Hunter’s commitment to ensuring that his final product would be coloured and posed properly, just as a sculpture would be, reveals the anatomist’s commitment to his ‘art’—a word he uses in his 1768 course to describe the making of his preparations.
As is apparent from these medical lectures, Hunter was interested throughout his career in the relationship between the human body and its representation in art, and this interest was rewarded when the Royal Academy was founded in 1768. When George III decreed that ‘there shall be a Professor of Anatomy, who shall read annually six public lectures in the Schools, adapted to the Arts of Design’, Hunter was appointed as the art school’s first anatomy chair. He began his lectures to art students in the autumn of 1770 by comparing the human body to a machine covered with a quilt. Though artists had hitherto focused on representing the outermost layer, Hunter contended:
Is it not obvious to common sense that it would be of great advantage to the artist to have the covering removed, and thereby have an opportunity to study the forms and motions of the several parts of the naked machine? (MS Hunter H 46, 2)
As a connoisseur of both art and anatomy, Hunter claimed that almost no painters had yet represented accurately the underlying anatomy of the body, though he concedes that often only ‘an eye that is in the habit of examination’ would notice these ‘transgressions’ (MS Hunter H 497, page 12). Still, he argued, the reality of the construction of the human form should be the standard to which artists should aspire: ‘Representation in the imitative Arts is a Substitute for reality; and except in matters of curiosity, affects us only […] by giving us the impression of the original reality’ (MS Hunter H497, page 10).
In Hunter’s emphasis on striving for a realistic portrayal of the human figure, he challenged the strictures of the members of the Royal Academy, which were set by its director, Sir Joshua Reynolds. Professor Martin Kemp writes in the MS Hunter H 46 file that Hunter most valued ‘supernaturalism, based on complete imitation’, and that, for the anatomist, ‘natural effects must always lie on a superior plane to the forms conjured up by the artist’s unaided imagination.’ Hunter’s belief that the artist should replicate faithfully the beauties of nature clashed with Reynolds’s classical ideal, in which the ‘central form’ to admire and imitate in art was ‘more nearly approximated in Ancient art than it [was in] nature’ (Cramer 46). In contrast to Reynolds’s idealization of the art of antiquity over the nature of the present, Hunter believed that, by using medical science to inform the ‘works of imagination’ of the era, ‘the works of English Artists […] may rival [or] excel the finest productions of Greece and Italy’ (MS Hunter H46, 5)
In short, in his lectures to students of both medicine and art, Hunter drew no distinction between the disciplines. He felt that both fields were committed to understanding the human body as accurately as possible as a means of uncovering the divine:
The Anatomist who can calmly consider the Structure of the Human Body without having the noblest thoughts arising in his mind of its divine Author must have his soul labouring under a dead Palsy as the great Milton cou’d look on the Sun at Midday without seeing its light from a defect in the Optic Nerve. (MS Gen 702)
In bringing together anatomy and aesthetics in his lectures at the Royal Academy, then, Hunter had tremendous ambition: he sought not only to redefine Enlightenment standards by placing the utmost value on the exact replication of nature in art, but also to promote imaginative works that reflected the inner divinity of the human form. If his students blended anatomy with their artwork, Hunter believed, the results would change the course of world history: ‘Why should not posterity be able to say that the latter half of the 18th Century was the most distinguished period in the annals of human Genius?’ (MS Hunter H46, 5)
Cramer, Charles A. Abstraction and the Classical Ideal, 1760-1920. Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Presses, 2006.
Hamilton, William. William Hunter: Notes of Anatomy Taken Down by Mr. William Hamilton. 1779. MS Hamilton 113, 114.
Hunter, William. Doctor Hunter’s anatomical and chirurgical lectures, October, November & Decr 1768. MS Gen 769-772.
—. William Hunter. Lectures anatomical and chirurgical. c1770. MS Gen 790.
—. Dr William Hunter’s anatomical lectures taken by —— in the year of our Lord 1781. Vol. 1. MS Gen 702.
—. William Hunter’s notes for his lectures to the Royal Academy where he was Professor of Anatomy. Ed. Martin Kemp. MS Hunter H 46; MS Hunter H 497.
Whitehead, Charles. William Hunter. Notes of his lectures on anatomy, delivered in 1752. MS Gen 720, 721.
Categories: Special Collections