Featured Review
Art and Anatomy in Nineteenth Century Britain"/>

01st March 2022

Featured Review
Art and Anatomy in Nineteenth Century Britain

Three Studies

Reviewed by Dr Christopher Gardner-Thorpe


The author of this volume, slim but with much within, worked during lockdown during the Covid-19 pandemic to study three artists who contributed to the study of anatomy, each of whom is the subject of a chapter here, with plenty of references.

The first artist was John Bell (1763-1820) from Edinburgh, founder of surgical anatomy where he taught an extramural course in the subject. He built his own school in Surgeons' Square. He taught his brother, Charles (1774-1822), eleven years younger, and the latter became prominent in Edinburgh and London, and it is his name that is given to a variety of lower neurone facial palsy. John provided descriptions of scenery and comment upon natural history in his 1816 journey through France to Italy, left in note form and edited by Charles to produce Observations on Italy (published in 1825 and later expanded in 1834). John believed that anatomy was essential to art, an opinion this reviewer recalls well as a frequent reminder by his grandmother in the 1950s. John comments on the anatomical correctness (or otherwise) of some statues in the museums of Italy, correcting anatomical mistakes in these artworks. He came at a time when the importance of proportions (of parts of the body) was being replaced by anatomical exactitude in art and he was a good amateur artist. In commenting on his favourite statue, that of the Dying Gladiator, John discusses the facial features, in some way prescient of his brother Charles' work on The Anatomy of Facial Expression of 1844 (and the subject of a paper by Neher), recalling his near-death experience when falling from a horse in Paris in 1816, which seems to have contributed eventually to his death due to internal injuries. He is saddened by the sight of a beautiful young woman in Florence who gives up the world to join a convent. John was not a religious man, unlike Charles, and he enjoyed life.

The second artist is Charles Landseer (1799-1879), elder brother of the better-known Edwin (1802-1873), who studied at Benjamin Robert Haydon's (1786-1846) informal school of art and at Charles Bell's Anatomy School, at the latter also with Thomas Bewick (1753-1828). Again, Charles Landseer emphasised the need to study anatomy as an aid to art. The anatomical drawings at the Wellcome Institute in London were described as some of the best ever made from dissections.

The third artist is Robert Carswell (1793-1857) of Edinburgh, one thousand of whose 'coloured representations' (in his own words) were prepared for teaching at the new London University in Gower Street and are held in the Special Collection at University College London. Carswell explains that inflammation is a term encompassing similar changes in tissues that can result from different diseases. His ‘visual editing’ enhances some aspects of his specimens and diminishes other aspects, something surely that separates drawing and painting from photographic representation, not mirroring the natural world but analysing it. Structure needs to be made clear first and then the model can be made more complicated. Visual images are cognitively powerful.

We see coloured plates illustrating some of the work of these three artists, and these, together with the text, should encourage us to look further, placing our own interpretations upon this important relationship of anatomy and art, emphasised through the decades and surely no less important today.


Christopher Gardner-Thorpe is a Consultant Neurologist in Exeter and is in active clinical practice in neurology and in active practice in medico legal work.


Art and Anatomy in Nineteenth Century Britain: Three Studies is available now in Hardback at a 25% discount. Enter code PROMO25 at checkout to redeem. 

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