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Robert Buhler RA, The Anatomy Lesson, or the Death of Art Schools

The Anatomy Lesson, or the Death of Art Schools, 1960s

Robert Buhler RA (1916 - 1989)

RA Collection: Art

On the recto of this sheet is a humorous pastiche sketch based on Rembrandt's painting The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp (1632; Maritshuis Museum, The Hague). Buhler depicts a group of shadowy men in seventeenth-century Netherlandish garb, similar to those in Rembrandt's work, huddled over a corpse as they prepare to remove the sheet that covers it. Only the feet of the corpse can be seen.

The right foot bears a tag which indicates the subject of Buhler's satire as it identifies the cadaver as the 'R.C.A' or Royal College of Art, symbolising - as suggested by the title on the bottom left - the 'death of the art schools'. The inscription 'Dip Ad' on the lower right refers to the common abbreviation for the 'Diploma in Art and Design' brought in during reforms of the UK art-school system in the early 1960s. There was a backlash against these changes later in the decade, in particular the student sit-in at the Hornsey College of Art, London. At Hornsey and elsewhere, the Dip Ad, with its academic entrance requirements, was seen as an attempt to assimilate 'the bohemians into conventional higher education; and, beyond this, into the society which determines the form of this Higher Education'. A meeting of art college representatives took place at the Royal College of Art in 1968 to discuss the protests and student-led events happening up and down the country. It was possibly at this time that Buhler made this sketch.

While the Dip Ad accentuated the importance of art history and cultural studies in order to bring the course into line with university degrees, it denigrated the traditional academic disciplines of fine-art courses like perspective, anatomy and drawing from plaster casts. These components were often removed from the curriculum altogether. Buhler's sketch humorously brings together references to the Old Masters and the practice of anatomical study, in suggesting that the art schools - represented by the prestigious Royal College where he taught painting - were being dismembered like a cadaver in an anatomy class.

On the verso of the sheet is a pen and ink sketch of three kneeling women at prayer, viewed from the back. Each has a candle suspended in front of them and above, in the centre, is a round cloud containing figures. The subject of this scene has not been identified but it is possibly another caricature or humorous sketch as it does not resemble the subject matter that Buhler normally painted, i.e. landscapes or urban settings and portraits.

Born in London to Swiss parents, Robert Buhler (1916-1989) studied commercial art at the Kunstgewerbeschule, Zürich and the Kunstgewerbeschule, Basel. He returned to London in 1933 and spent two terms at Bolt Court School of Photo-Engraving and Lithography. In 1934 Buhler enrolled at St Martin's School of Art in London, where he studied under Vivian Pitchforth and Leon Underwood. The following year he won a scholarship to the Royal College of Art but stayed only six weeks.

Buhler became friends with members and associates of the Euston Road School who visited his mother's bookshop and café on Charlotte Street. Although he was not a member of the group, these artists influenced his use of restrained tones and preference for painting townscapes and landscapes. Primarily a painter of places, Buhler was also much admired as a portraitist. He exhibited at various venues including the Leger Galleries, the Leicester Galleries, and Agnew's with Roger de Grey and Carel Weight. He also exhibited with the New English Art Club from 1945 and at the Royal Academy from 1946, being elected A.R.A. a year later and a full Academician in 1956. Buhler taught at Wimbledon School of Art, Central School of Arts and Crafts, the Chelsea School of Art and the Royal College of Art from the 1940s onwards. In 1982 he won the Wollaston Award at the Royal Academy and in 1984 the Hunting Group prize for his painting Vineyards, Neuchâtel. Three of his works were purchased under the terms of the Chantrey Bequest and a number are in regional and international collections.

Object details

Robert Buhler RA (1916 - 1989)
Object type

244 mm x c. 390 mm

Royal Academy of Arts
Object number
Bequeathed by Carel Weight RA 1999


The Anatomy Lesson, or the Death of Art Schools
Robert Buhler RA (1916 - 1989)
Black pen and ink (felt tip pen)


Three figures at prayer
Red pen and ink (felt tip pen)
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