Art review: William Hunter and the Anatomy of the Modern Museum, The Hunterian, Glasgow

William Hunter's portrait by his friend Allan Ramsay personifies the Scottish Enlightenment. In its evident truthfulness it is thoroughly empirical, the defining characteristic of Enlightenment thought, but the picture is also luminous with the sitter's intelligence and humanity, not as abstract qualities, but as an aspect of his social being and indeed of his presence, right there, as a friend of the painter. It reminds us that the Enlightenment was not shaped by mere rationalism. On the contrary, its great thinkers, David Hume, Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson and others established the place in our understanding of the world and of each other of sympathy, imagination, feeling and the non-rational faculties.

William Hunter by Allan Ramsay, c. 176465. 
© The Hunterian, University of Glasgow.
William Hunter by Allan Ramsay, c. 176465. © The Hunterian, University of Glasgow.

William Hunter and the Anatomy of the Modern Museum, The Hunterian, Glasgow *****

Hunter was born in 1718 and his portrait presides over an exhibition in the Hunterian, the museum that bears his name, to mark his tercentenary. He was an alumnus of Glasgow where he was a student of Frances Hutcheson who, with the philosophy of moral sense, set the direction of Scottish Enlightenment thought towards feeling and the primacy of the imagination. Adam Smith and the painter Gavin Hamilton were among Hunter’s fellow pupils. From Glasgow, he went to Edinburgh to study medicine with Alexander Munro, who had introduced a new, empirical approach to the subject. Hunter then moved to London. There he was part of a community of Scots, including Ramsay and his own mentor, the surgeon James Douglas, whose assistant and intellectual heir he became.

The exhibition explores the remarkable collections that he formed, inspired in part by Douglas, and subsequently bequeathed to the University to create in 1807 Scotland’s first public museum. The show opens with a display of books, papers and portraits that illuminate Hunter’s education, background and the intellectual context in which he flourished. There are samples here of his collecting, including his wonderful Rembrandt, The Entombment of Christ. Other pictures are hung throughout the show including, for example, the magnificent landscape by Rembrandt’s pupil Philips Koninck. His continued links with Scotland are also illustrated here. One touching document, for instance, is a letter from his close friend and fellow surgeon William Cullen, telling him of the death of Hume.

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    Tibetan image in an 18th-century Russian manuscript volume. © University of Glasgow Library, Archives and Special Collections.

    Anatomy naturally forms a key part of his collections, but his particular contribution was in obstetrics. Appropriately therefore at the heart of the exhibition is a display of the life-size écorché models, drawings and engravings that went to create his monumental and exquisitely produced Anatomy of the Human Gravid Uterus, published in 1774. Though the art work is beautiful in execution and delicacy of observation, the display is nevertheless challenging, for these studies, though so crucial, could only be created from the mute and tragic witnesses of women and their babies who had died in childbirth. Here, however, Hunter’s wonderful painting by Chardin of a Woman Taking Tea is a kind of antidote. (Hunter’s two smaller Chardins also hang nearby along with his austere Peasant Family, attributed to Mathieu Le Nain.) An equal and relevant part of his collection, the picture was not there just to provide a little aesthetic light relief from what Charles Bell, a great Scottish surgeon in a later generation, called “the severe and unpleasant prosecution of science,” but as a reminder of the pursuit of truth and the common humanity that frame and drive both art and science, then still indivisible.

    Thus the central place here of Hunter’s anatomical research illuminates the rest of the exhibition and his astonishing collections represent a very particular, but also creative approach to knowledge. They were also part of his role as a teacher. His lectures on anatomy were an important and widely influential and his museum, a place of study first set up in his home in Windmill Street, was a practical adjunct to them. He was however independent and not part of any institution except, significantly, the newly founded Royal Academy where he was Professor of Anatomy. One remarkable exhibit here is the écorché figure probably taken from the corpse of one Solomon Porter. An unfortunate individual hanged at Tyburn, he was nevertheless immortalised in this figure which served as a model in Hunter’s lectures in the Academy and to many generations of art students subsequently. A painting by Zoffany shows Hunter demonstrating with just such a model to an audience that includes the Academy’s first President, Sir Joshua Reynolds.

    Hunter’s first ambition was to create a national school of anatomy. In this he failed. His bequest to Glasgow was his second choice, but still reflected his ambition to leave for future generations a universal museum as an educational resource, a place where knowledge could be derived, not just from the study of individual objects, but even more from their interconnectedness. Anatomical, zoological and entomological specimens, both wet and dry, drawings and engravings of them for the purpose of study and publication, paintings, coins, ethnography, a remarkable library that included not only anatomical books, but rare editions of classical authors, illuminated manuscripts, Islamic texts and even a very early manuscript of Chaucer’s Romaunt of the Rose – all these things and a great deal more were brought together, not as a jumble of random acquisitions, but systematically. His collecting also closely paralleled that of Sir Hans Sloane, which formed the nucleus of the British Museum. His own ambition really was the manifestation of a universal idea, the opposite of the specialisation and life-denying “research assessment exercises” that strangle knowledge in our modern universities.

    It is very striking, too, how Hunter was not touched by the modern hubris that would have led him to regard his predecessors in medicine as merely quaint and misguided. He reverently collected and studied the works of great pioneers like the 16th-century anatomist Vesalius. He also owned a portrait of the celebrated 17th-century physician William Harvey and was one of the first to recognise the scientific importance of Leonardo’s drawings. He seems to have seen himself as part of a community that stretched back to Hippocrates and Aristotle in classical times – and he was himself a classical scholar who in his spare time liked to edit Greek texts. This community of learning stretched laterally across the world in modern times, too. Alexander Munro had brought the empirical methods of Dutch surgeons to Scotland. His student Hunter was one of those who developed them most successfully and his own influence spread to North America.

    Thorny oyster shell, Spondylus gaederopus Linnaeus, 1758. © The Hunterian, University of Glasgow.

    The exhibition is also the occasion for the publication of a handsome catalogue, William Hunter and the Anatomy of the Modern Museum, edited by Mungo Campbell and Nathan Flis. Collectively the essays in it suggest how it was through the broad stream of medical thinking that flowed across the North Sea that Scotland in the 18th century became heir to 17th-century Dutch empirical thought. Which brings us full circle back to Ramsay: how his sympathetic and humane portraiture is heir to Rembrandt’s. If, however, Ramsay’s art seems too decorous for that comparison then, more starkly, his friend Hume’s sceptical examination of the workings of his own mind echoes Rembrandt’s merciless self-examination, just as it parallels Hunter’s fearless exploration of the workings of the human body.

    The title of the book transfers Hunter’s key study of anatomy to his creation of one of the first modern museums. In Glasgow, however, his magnificent bequest, which originally had its own handsome building, has for many years been dispersed. It has been impossible to appreciate it as a whole. Fittingly for his tercentenary this exhibition gives us a sense of the scale and enduring importance of his gift.