The RA will turn 250 on 10 December this year. To celebrate, we’re highlighting 250 beautiful, odd and inspiring objects from our Collection across 25 themes. We’re starting with the study of human anatomy, once a key part of the artistic training provided at the RA Schools. Here’s our head-to-toe guide to what happens when fresh corpses and fine art meet…
The Scottish artist William Home Lizars usually painted portraits and domestic subjects, but created these detailed illustrations in the 1820s for 'A System of Anatomical Plates of the Human Body', written by his brother John Lizars. An anatomist who taught Charles Darwin, John Lizars' other works included an early warning against the dangers of tobacco, published 1856.
Benjamin Robert Haydon became obsessed with anatomy while studying at the Royal Academy Schools in the early 1800s. He started off making studies from illustrated books, like this one, and ended up performing his own dissections.
Gaspar Becerra, a Spanish painter and sculptor, is said to have studied with Michelangelo in Rome. He illustrated a book on anatomy for fellow Spaniard Juan Valverde de Amusco, but most of the plates were copied from the earlier work of Andreas Vesalius, who understandably complained about the plagiarism.
The Scottish anatomist John Bell studied art when he was young and later drew these striking but grisly illustrations for his book on the anatomy of bones, muscles, and joints, published in 1794. Bell believed that anatomical illustrations in textbooks should depict dead bodies, rather than idealised figures posed to imitate Classical sculpture as was common at the time. The images have been described as "evoking the ghoulish creations of Gothic novels".
John Flaxman was the Royal Academy’s first Professor of Sculpture, best known for his neo-classical designs and illustrations to Homer. In his spare time, he also worked on a treatise about ‘Motion and Equilibrium in the Human Body’ with a chapter on anatomy. Some of his anatomical studies, including this one, were published after he died.
Another illustration drawn by William Lizars for his brother John's textbook, this image records the position of blood vessels and nerves on the back of the hand. As with many other anatomical illustrations, it also has a hint of horror about it and could easily be a ghoulish hand rising from the grave.
Benjamin Robert Haydon drew this preserved anatomical specimen during a visit to the Royal Naval Hospital in Plymouth, while he was still a student at the RA Schools . He was called there to see his father who was seriously ill but, by the time he arrived, his father was better, so Haydon spent his time borrowing specimens from the medical staff to draw instead.
Haydon eventually assembled all of his anatomical studies in an album and used them to teach his students, who included the Victorian painter and sculptor Sir Edwin Landseer and his brothers.
Many art schools collected casts of flayed bodies or body parts, like these feet, for use in preparatory drawing classes. They were drawn by William Quiller Orchardson while he was an art student in Edinburgh.
This striking figure is an example of an 'écorché': a plaster cast of a human body flayed to reveal the musculature. In this case the body was that of an executed criminal, thought to have been a smuggler turned murderer. It was made for students in the RA Schools to draw and is posed to imitate the Classical sculpture ‘The Dying Gaul’, held in the collection of the Musei Capitolini in Rome. Inspired by the crimes of the unfortunate model, the cast was given the mock Latin nickname ‘Smugglerius’ early on and the name has stuck.