The art of anatomy

SOME 230 years after the body of a hanged highway robber was turned into a sculpture, an intriguing pair of exhibitions aim to shed light on his identity and the history of anatomical art, discovers Jim Gilchrist

• Artist and lecturer Joan Smith with the cast, nicknamed Smugglerius

HE IS preserved for posterity in the idealised posture of a dying warrior, when in fact his last moments could hardly have been more wretchedly ignoble, as he danced the "Tyburn jig" on the end of a rope.

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The final indignity visited upon James Langar, a convicted highway robber, taken from London's Newgate prison and hanged at Tyburn on 12 April, 1776, was that his body was taken down from the gibbet and flayed, on the instructions of the famed anatomist Dr William Hunter.

His unsparingly exposed physique was then arranged in the manner of the statue called The Dying Gaul – thought to be an ancient Roman marble copy of a lost Hellenistic sculpture, and previously known as The Dying Gladiator – as a model for medical and art students, rather than as a macabre object lesson for the criminal classes.

One of several casts taken of the corch, as such skinless anatomical models and drawings were known, has been used to teach anatomical drawing and painting to generations of students at Edinburgh College of Art. Given the faux-Latin title of "Smugglerius" back in the 18th century, the figure of the hitherto unknown criminal goes on public view tomorrow, in Edinburgh University's Talbot Rice Gallery, in association with an exhibition Drawing For Instruction: The Art of Explanation, and it is only recent research conducted by the organisers that has revealed that Smugglerius was in fact not a smuggler, but a highway robber who prowled London's Hyde Park.

"I drew him for years, and have used him to teach anatomy for years," says Joan Smith, who teaches at Edinburgh College of Art and has curated a sculptural and photographic installation, Smugglerius Unveiled, with anthropologist Dr Jeanne Cannizo, in association with the drawing exhibition.

"Until about a year ago he was kept in a cupboard in the basement and dragged out for anatomy drawing classes, until I thought: 'Wait a minute, we need to make a bit more of this.' The conservation project was under way for all the college's cast collection, so I got him brought out from the cupboard and he has been getting some work done on him."

We're talking while standing in Playfair's elegant 1831 hall in the university's Old College, now part of the Talbot Rice, regarding Smugglerius. The initial impact is of the figure is part-poignant, part-grisly; the starkness of the flayed body exacerbated by the imposing order of the neo-classical columns which flank him. The plaster in which he is cast looks almost burnished by time and usage, and he has lost a few fingers over the years. Smith recalls drawing the figure when she was a student: "My tutor, Ian Paterson, used to tell us he was a hanged criminal who had been flayed and cast, so I kind of knew that from early on, but I didn't quite believe it. It was only just recently we found out who he was."

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Knowing who the man was and the grim death he died does change her feelings towards the figure, she agrees: "It did give me a bit of a shiver when I could put a name to the face. Up until then he'd been an anonymous specimen."

As we walk round the slumped figure, the light glimmers off immaculately exposed muscles, a tribute to the skill of the young 18th century sculptor, Agnosti Carlini, who was asked by Hunter to cast the body in that particular posture in order to show both tensed and relaxed muscles.

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A 1781 guide to the Royal Academy of Arts records the affair: "Smugglerius. A jocular name given to this Cast, which was moulded on the Body of a Smuggler for the use of the Academy. As Dr Hunter, professor of Anatomy to the Academy, was going to dissect that body in one of his lectures to the young Students, it was observed that many parts of it were very fine and worth preserving. Signor Carlini was therefore directed to mould it, and he chose to give it the posture of the Dying Gladiator."

"Hunter did the flaying for the anatomy class," says Smith. "It doesn't bear thinking about. They must have done it within a pretty short period, because they wouldn't have had refrigeration or anything like that."

Hunter, the East Kilbride-born physician, obstetrician and outstanding anatomist of his day, taught students of art as well as of medicine. His own interest in the arts saw him accumulate a major collection of books and prints, leading at least one commentator to describe him as "the midwife of Neoclassicism".

Looking at the figure's naked musculature, one is put in mind of the similarly stripped and "plastinated" cadavers exhibited by the modern German anatomist Dr Gunther von Hagens in his controversial Body Worlds exhibitions. Is there an ethical issue here, akin to those sometimes raised over Von Hagens's sometimes tricky balance between science education and showmanship? "The big difference is that Von Hagens's specimens, or their families, gave their consent," says Smith, "and apparently he has a list of people wanting to be put on display after death. But this guy wouldn't have had any choice in the matter."

For 18th century anatomists like Hunter, corpses suitable for dissection were in short supply and the only specimens they could legitimately use were those of executed criminals. "It was the period of Enlightenment," says Smith, "but you have to weigh up the two sides of it: the brutality and the fact that it was about learning. And even though people like Hunter were only dissecting miscreants, they were still caricatured as bodysnatchers."

Edinburgh, of course, would become well acquainted with real bodysnatchers in the early 19th century, as its internationally renowned anatomy classes struggled to maintain an adequate supply of fresh cadavers. And the most notorious of the bodysnatchers – who in fact dispensed with digging up bodies and simply murdered his "specimens" – was William Burke of Burke and Hare fame, who was publicly dissected himself following his execution in 1829. "It's all part of the same story, in a way," says Smith, "and of course there's an Edinburgh connection with Hunter, too, because he studied medicine here."

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In investigating the case of Smugglerius, the exhibition organisers delved into Royal Academy records, including a letter written from London, probably in 1776, by the young sculptor John Deare, which states: "I have seen two men hanged, and one with his breast cut open at Surgeon's Hall. The other, being a fine subject, they took him to the Royal Academy and covered him with plaster of Paris, after they had put him in the position of the Dying Gladiator."

Looking for double executions which might correspond with Deare's account, the researchers found that on 12 April, 1776, just two men were hanged from the often busy Tyburn gibbet – a Samuel Whitlow, for burglary, and one James Langar, for highway robbery. Not that Langar was your romantic stereotype of a dashing, moonlit figure astride a fast horse: "highway robbery" was the term for any robbery taking place on or near the king's highway. Langar was more of a footpad. His victims believed he was armed with a pistol, although no such item was produced in evidence against him.

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Langar appeared twice at the same session of the Old Bailey, on two accounts of highway robbery in Hyde Park. He reportedly said little in his defence, in one case declaring: "I know myself not guilty of the fact", and, in the other: "I see they are determined to swear my life away."

Any stern enjoinders of "Mend your ways, or you'll end up in an art installation" don't seem to have been on the cards, and Langar was hanged at the same time as the burglar, Whitlow. As nothing appears in the court records about Whitlow's stature, it is presumed that Langar was the well-proportioned Smugglerius. Soldiers were often used as life models in art colleges at that time, due to their good physique. After his hanging, Langar's corpse may well have been retrieved from the scaffold by William Hunter's brother, John, who at that time procured bodies, post-execution, for William, but who would go on to become an eminent surgeon in his own right. The term foisted on the flayed and cast cadaver, "Smugglerius", with its jokey, pseudo-classical overtones, suited the Dying Gladiator pose, but also echoed the 18th century literary circle members known as Scriblerians, and mid-18th-century fictitious chronicler known as Martinus Scriblerus.

Some 234 years on, the skinned Langar provides a striking focal point in the Talbot Rice's Georgian hall, surrounded by specially commissioned photographs by Caroline Douglas in a contemporary response to the cast. From the cabinet on which he reclines, old anatomical drawings threaten to spill out. Smith has assembled easels, to encourage visitors to sketch their own responses to the flayed man. In the gallery's modern "white space" area, other anatomical illustrations from the art college archives line the wall. Pat Fisher, principal curator of the Talbot Rice, emphasises the linked exhibitions' preoccupation with illustration as instruction, using the archives: "We started to explore the idea of bringing the cast into the gallery. Given that anatomical casts like this, and of course the naked life model, are historical and continual subjects for drawing, it seemed to me that the two things would sit well together."

Smith describes herself as delighted by the fresh interest in the hitherto obscure figure of the hapless criminal. "This was someone who lost his life, his skin, his identity. In mounting this exhibition we're trying to redress that balance a little, reverse the process of a human being made into a specimen."

• The two exhibitions, Drawing for Instruction: the Art of Explanation and Smugglerius Unveiled, open at the Talbot Rice Gallery tomorrow.