Edinburgh Art Festival Reviews: Anatomy – A Matter of Life and Death | Alan Davie

ByJames I. Robertson

Jul 26, 2022
Dr Tacye Phillipson and Steven Anderson install the 1728 painting Dr Willem Röell’s Anatomy Lesson by Cornelis Troost at the National Museum of Scotland. On loan from the Amsterdam Museum, it is one of over 200 exhibits in Anatomy: A Matter of Death and Life. PIC: Neil Hanna Photography

Anatomy: A Matter of Life and Death, National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh ****

Alan Davie, Beginning of a Distant World, Dovecot, Edinburgh ****

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In the 18th century, Edinburgh was at the center of the development of modern medicine and in the Anatomy: A Matter of Death and Life exhibition at the National Museum we learn how medical education and research in the city evolved as “a mix of competition and collaboration”. between the Town Hall, the University and the professional colleges of Surgeons and Doctors.’ The show also gives a good introduction to the earlier development of anatomy, but as the story progresses it becomes clear that the real question is where did the anatomists get the bodies they needed? for the dissection? We follow a rather dizzying arc from Leonardo da Vinci to the grave robbers and the horrific story of Burke and Hare and the West Port murders. Rather than digging up corpses to sell to impatient anatomists, dramatically shortening the supply chain, these two individuals murdered a series of unfortunate sixteen who they thought no one would miss.

The exhibition opens with three plates of astonishing anatomical drawings by Leonardo. He was ahead of his time, but it was not until a few years later, also in Italy, that the first pioneers of anatomy practiced. De humane corporis fabrica by Andreas Vesalius, published in 1543, was the first great illustrated anatomical book. Vesalius was for a time a professor in Padua and a little later the first anatomy theater was built there in 1595. We still talk about operating theaters, but originally they were really theaters. An engraving from 1610 shows how the theater in Leiden, for example, was a circular pit with rails on which spectators could lean. In a macabre touch, the audience understands the skeletons, human and animal, from ancient dissections.

Leiden became a major center for medicine. It was also closely linked to Edinburgh and apparently two hundred and fifty Scots studied medicine there around 1700. Part of the attraction was the teaching of Herman Boerhaave, a pioneer in the application of new empirical science to medicine . Alexander Monro was among his students. Represented here by the fine portrait of Alan Ramsay from 1750, he had become the first professor of anatomy at Edinburgh Medical School thirty years earlier. Still known as primus, he was succeeded in his post by his son Alexander secundus and his grandson Alexander tertius. Such hereditary chairs were not uncommon.

A rather gruesome painting of a public dissection from 1709 provides the answer to the question of where the bodies came from. The surgeon here is Archibald Pitcairne, a Scotsman who has taught in both Leiden and Edinburgh, emphasizing the links between the two institutions, and the partly flayed corpse he is working on has a noose around its neck. He was hanged and, as part of his punishment, his body was donated to science. Executed criminals like him have long been almost the only permitted objects of anatomical dissections. However, following the Burke and Hare scandal of 1828, the Anatomy Act of 1832 authorized the dissection of unclaimed bodies from hospitals and poor houses. More recently, notably following the National Health Act of 1947, organisms bequeathed to science by individuals provided all that was needed.

The central part of the exhibition focuses mainly on medicine in Enlightenment Edinburgh, but examples of charms people wore to ward off afflictions suggest the little medical help available to those less fortunate. There are also cookbooks listing home remedies, another less dubious resource that is invariably reserved for women. Zoffany’s painting of William Hunter teaching anatomy at the Royal Academy in London recalls the link between medicine and art. Artists were indeed essential to anatomy and Edinburgh became a major center for the publication of illustrated medical works. The magnificent structure and physiognomy of “Fishes Explained and Compared with Those of Man and Other Animals” by Alexander Monro secundus published in 1785, for example, recalls what Darwin may have learned as a medical student at Edinburgh. It’s mentioned here but only in passing as we’re rushed to the main event, the Tomb Raiders, represented by a dead vault, literally a vault for a corpse, and other devices to fox the robbers. Then comes the climax, a lavish exploration of the story of Burke and Hare, their accomplices, Helen McDougal and Hares’ wife, Margaret Laird, their unfortunate victims and willing clients, including the anatomist Robert Knox. There’s even a “crime scene” drawn on the floor of the murder of Mary Docherty, the victim whose case revealed the murders. Reflecting intense public interest, there are portraits of both the perpetrators and some of their sixteen victims. These are mostly quite superficial, but a portrait of James Wilson, or Daft Jamie as he was called, is attributed to Andrew Geddes. This striking likeness of a demonstrably real person brings the whole story that much closer.

Mortsafe of Airth, 1831

Burke was the only murderer convicted and was executed on January 28, 1829. A humorous engraving by Walter Geikie of the huge crowd at his execution shows all that most people would have seen, the backs of those in front of them . Then Burke in turn became the victim of the anatomist. His skeleton hangs here. Seventeen wooden figures in tiny coffins found on Arthur’s Seat may have been an anonymous act of piety for the unburied victims. The seventeenth would have been Donald, surname unknown, whose body was the first to be sold but who died a natural death. It’s all still a shocking story, but if the organizers really wanted to compete with the Edinburgh Dungeons, they might have missed a trick. The university’s anatomy theater, where at least some of those poor folks may have been cut out, is now the Talbot Rice Gallery at Old College, just across the wall. More than that, there’s a trapdoor in the sidewalk below opening into a secret passageway that I’ve always been told, I think reliably, was a discreet entrance for corpses destined for the theater upstairs.

Closely related to all of this, Edinburgh Infirmary was just across the road. Infirmary Street registers its presence and Dovecot Studios is housed in what was once the Infirmary Street Baths. Dovecot’s ambitious exhibition program currently includes a small exhibition of works by Alan Davie, an artist with whom the Studios have worked on several projects. The preparatory works for some of them are included in the show. The same goes for a large, brightly colored rug. It is impressive but, in keeping with its later date, it displays the slightly stereotypical models that Davie usually used from the 1970s. His best work was undoubtedly from the late forties to the sixties and the real interest of this exhibit resides in the small group of vivid and improvised works he produced in those years. Pagan Dance, for example, from 1948 is a surprising departure from a fairly decent still life from 1946, and until 1968 he could still paint a vividly jazzy and also rather crude picture like Good Morning My Sweet. Not everything went downhill after that, but his work lost something of the vital energy that made his early work so remarkable at the time.

Anatomy: A Matter of Death and Life runs until October 30; Alan Davie, Beginning of a Distant World until September 24. Both exhibitions are part of this year’s Edinburgh Art Festival, see www.edinburghartfestival.com

Hunter lecturing at the Royal Academy by Johann Zoffany PIC: Royal College of Physicians of London
Serpent Swallows the Fairy Tree (1971) and Mama Idol (1976) two of the paintings by Scottish artist Alan Davie (1920 – 2014) featured in Alan Davie: Beginning of a Far-off World at Dovecot Studios. Photo: Rob McDougall

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