There appears to be a contemporary assumption that one is either artistically or scientifically inclined, and an active interest in both is often regarded as unusual. Having spent time in the Royal Society’s archive looking at anatomical imagery, it is clear that historically, there was a more coherent relationship between the two.
A prime example of the interaction between science and art in the realm of anatomy is the joint status held by the physician William Hunter and the painter and art theorist Joshua Reynolds, both of whom were Fellows of the Royal Society and members of the Royal Academy. Hunter was the Royal Academy’s first professor of anatomy – a physician teaching the nation’s leading artists in the knowledge and skills they would need to ply their trade. The importance of sustained looking and objective representation is exemplified in Johann Meckel’s incredibly detailed recording of the networks of veins on the human head from 1755 which includes over 300 numbered annotations:
Many physicians created their own anatomical images. Not only was this form of recording necessary, but it appears to have generally been embraced. Scientific images imbued with decorative flair are not uncommon, indeed the scientist’s reliance on the draughtsman (when their own artistic skills were lacking) is an interesting and now largely extinct relationship.
Of note is William Cheselden FRS, a professional surgeon but also a dab hand at anatomical draughtsmanship (a number of his plates are by other draughtsmen, but these were closely guided and directed by Cheselden). In his book Anatomy of the Human Body (1726) Cheselden, in his pursuit of educating medical students, showcases a number of views of accurate, anatomical forms that also reference high art. This image of an open torso, devised to educate students on the whereabouts of vital organs, echoes classical male forms. The sanitised, severed limbs evoke notions of a marble statue, such as the Miletus Torso in the Louvre:
Another example of the crossover between art and anatomy within our collections is Jean Cousin’s Anatomy for Portraits. Dealing with the proportions of the body, for the benefit of ‘painters, sculptors, goldsmiths, architects…’, it was intended to instruct these professionals in the ‘true science’ of human anatomy and portraiture:
A clear and coherent drawing was an essential reference point. Yet this dependence of science upon art was all but dissolved over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with the invention of visual technologies such as the camera and microscope negating the need for the scientist’s draughtsman (or the draughtsman-scientist). One can sense the process beginning as far back as William Cheselden’s Osteographia (1733) well-known for its deployment (and illustration) of the camera obscura.
Some argue that the modern shift dividing these disciplines has created a dearth of artistic creativity in the sciences, but I think these anatomical examples highlight an intrinsic creativity and aesthetic sense that scientists must possess in order to visually communicate their insights, whether working 300 years ago or today.
Rebecca Easey is a Masters student at the University of Sussex. She recently completed a placement at the Royal Society assisting with the digitisation of images for the Picture Library.