The body dissected, drawn and displayed - Anatomy in an album of drawings from Hans Sloane’s collection.
A recent addition to the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts is Add MS 5259, a folio-size album containing more than 200 drawings on human and animal anatomy. Dating between the 16th and 18th centuries, these drawings were executed by various European artists and physicians and once belonged to Sir Hans Sloane, himself a physician and avid collector, whose albums of drawings were introduced in a previous blog post.
A first look through the folios of the manuscript may leave many viewers surprised: there are drawings of human organs, watercolours of dissected animals, sketches of the musculature and detailed views of bodies displaying pathological conditions. How can we make sense of these striking juxtapositions? Yet the contents of Add MS 5259 reflect the breadth of knowledge and range of topics part of the visual culture of anatomy in early modern Europe, when studying anatomy meant to dissect, examine and represent the body of humans and animals alike.
Nowadays we think of anatomy within the remit of the medical profession only, but in the early modern period, how the body functioned was a question that fascinated a broader audience. For artists, understanding how the body articulates movement through the combined work of muscles and bones was key to the successful depiction of lifelike figures. Add MS 5259 contains examples of anatomy drawings made by and for artists, like this pen and ink drawing of an animated skeleton that once belonged to the Flemish artist Prosper Henry Lankrink.
In Sloane’s time, medical knowledge was disseminated in print. The manuscript notes and sketches preparatory for publications rarely survive, so the large amount of draft material in Add MS 5259 offers valuable insight into physicians’ publishing endeavours. Equally noteworthy is the presence of drawings executed by medical practitioners who were skilled draughtsmen, such as William Cowper, whose chalk drawings of the musculature relate to his publication on the topic, Myotomia Reformata (London, 1724).
Whereas anatomy textbooks usually offer representations of an average body, collections of medical case studies known as Observationes take hold in the 17th century as a way to report on abnormalities affecting the body. This may explain why the manuscript includes, for example, depictions of overgrown organs and conjoined twins. The understanding of these conditions – which for modern viewers are very different – gradually shifted during Sloane’s lifetime from the realm of the monstrous to the pathological. For physicians, producing drawings of these conditions was one way of documenting them and increasing the reliability of their written observations.
Add MS 5259 also testifies to the widespread experimentation with animals. By vivisecting animals like the mouse pictured here below, anatomists could investigate vital operations occurring in the living body, which could not be understood by inspecting a cadaver.
Animals could be a substitute, but also a term of comparison for the human body. The growing interest in comparative anatomy in the late 17th century is reflected in these chalk studies of a chimpanzee, preparatory drawings for a book by Edward Tyson that explored the structural similarities between primates and men.
Overall, Sloane’s album reminds us of the value ascribed to visual representation in the study of anatomy, at a time when drawing and dissecting were equally important ways of producing knowledge about the body.
PhD candidate, The Courtauld Institute of Art
- For more on Sloane’s collection of manuscripts at the British Library, you can consult the collection guide
-Two works on paper from Add MS 5259 were removed from the album in 1928 and transferred to the Prints and Drawings Department in the British Museum: item 13 (British Museum 1928,0310.101) and item 227 (British Museum 1928,0310.102)
-William Cowper’s drawings in Add MS 5259 have recently been discussed and illustrated in Monique Kornell, “Drawings by William Cowper for his Myotomia reformata (London, 1724), Master Drawings 57, no. 4 (2019): 489-510.
-Prosper Henry Lankrink’s ‘PHL’ monogram features on the British Library’s copy of the first Dutch anatomy manual for artists, Jacob van der Gracht’s Anatomie der wtterliche deelen van het menschelick lichaem (Anatomy of the exterior parts of the human body; The Hague, 1634): British Library General Reference Collection, 544.l.11.(1.)., as well as on many drawings now in the collection of the British Museum.