Thomas Banks RA, Anatomical Crucifixion (James Legg)

Anatomical Crucifixion (James Legg), 1801

Thomas Banks RA (1735 - 1805)

RA Collection: Art

This gruesome figure was cast from the corpse of a murderer taken straight from the gallows to be nailed to a cross and flayed in order to settle an artistic debate. This was done at the request of three Royal Academicians - sculptor Thomas Banks and painters Benjamin West and Richard Cosway - to prove their belief that most depictions of the Crucifixion were anatomically incorrect.

Until the passing of the Anatomy Act of 1832, the only bodies legally available for dissection in England were those of executed criminals. Casts of flayed cadavers, known as écorchés, were therefore important as models for teaching anatomy both in medical schools and in art academies. Conventional écorchés made for artists consisted of a standing male figure set in a classicising pose and flayed to expose the first layer of muscles. However, in the late eighteenth century, artists and anatomists began to experiment with more elaborate poses and deeper levels of dissection.

In this case, the story behind the making of the figure is recorded in contemporary newspaper reports and in the recollections of those involved. The three Academicians approached the eminent surgeon, Joseph Constantine Carpue, in 1801 asking for his help in finding a suitable subject. On 2nd October, an opportunity arose when Carpue was called to Chelsea Hospital where one of the captains, an old Irishman named James Legg, had argued with a fellow pensioner called Lamb and subsequently burst into his room carrying two loaded pistols and demanding a duel. Lamb refused and threw the pistol to the ground. Incensed, Legg shot his colleague in the chest, killing him immediately. At his trial Legg was described as appearing 'extremely decent and venerable' but in spite of his advanced age and a defence of insanity he was found guilty. He was sentenced to be hanged on 2nd November and his body afterwards dissected, allowing Carpue and the Academicians to carry out their macabre experiment.

Carpue described the occasion; 'a building was erected near the place of the execution; a cross provided. The subject was nailed on the cross; the cross suspended…the body, being warm, fell into the position that a dead body must fall into…When cool, a cast was made, under the direction of Mr Banks, and when the mob was dispersed it was removed to my theatre'. Carpue then proceeded to flay the cadaver and Banks made another cast.

The two striking figures generated considerable public interest at the time and crowds of people gathered to see them displayed in Thomas Banks's London studio. The following year he had them moved to the RA, hoping that they 'might be useful to the Students of the Royal Academy & also to the professor of Anatomy at the time of his giving his lectures as they may be mov'd from the Antique Academy to the Lecture room & back again with very little trouble'. In 1822, however, the two casts were removed to Carpue's own anatomical museum and then to the studio of the sculptor William Behnes. During the later 19th century they were displayed together in the dissecting room of St. George's Hospital medical school. By 1917, however, the écorché cast had been returned to the Royal Academy where it narrowly missed being hit by a Zeppelin bomb. It still hangs in the life-drawing room of the Royal Academy where it forms part of a wider collection of anatomical casts, drawings and skeletons. Its pair remains untraced.

Object details

Anatomical Crucifixion (James Legg)
Production supervised by
Thomas Banks RA (1735 - 1805)
Object type
Sculpture Cast
Plaster cast, early 19th century

1410 x 2315 x 340 mm

Royal Academy of Arts
Object number
Purchased from Thomas Banks RA, in 1802
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