Anatomical Crucifixion (James Legg), 1801
Thomas Banks RA (1735 - 1805)
RA Collection: Art
On free display in The Julia and Hans Rausing Hall
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 (reading between the lines, he was possibly suffering from dementia) 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.
Meredith Gamer, 'Criminal and Martyr. The Case of James Legg's Crucifixion' in Salley Promey ed., Sensational Religion. Sensory Practices in Material Culture, New Haven and London, 2014, Chapter 30,
Martin Postle, 'Flayed for art. The écorché figure in the English art academy', The British Art Journal, Volume V. No. 1, 2004, pp. 55-63
M. Kemp and M. Wallace, Spectacular Bodies: The Art and Science of the Human Body from Leonardo to Now, exhibition catalogue, Hayward Gallery, London, 2000, cat. 41, p. 86
I. Bignamini and M. Postle, The Artist's Model from Lely to Etty , exhib. cat, Nottingham, 1991, cat. no. 91
Julius Bryant, 'Thomas's Bank's anatomical crucifixion: A tale of death and dissection', Apollo Magazine, June 1991, pp. 490-411
Letter from Thomas Banks to the Council of the Royal Academy, 22 July 1802, RAA/SEC/2/5/7
Old Bailey Proceedings Online, 28th October 1801, trial of James Legg https://www.oldbaileyonline.org/browse.jsp?id=t18011028-39-off213&div=t18011028-39#highlight
Dying behaviour, &c. Of James Legg, for the Murder of William Lamb; and Richard Stark, for the Murder of his Wife. Who were Executed this Morning, opposite the Debtor's Door, Newgate, London 1801
'The Old Bailey', Caledonian Mercury, 5th November 1801
2315 mm x 1410 mm x 340 mm, Weight: 74 kg
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