Edinburgh Art Festival reviews: Anatomy - A Matter of Death and Life | Alan Davie

The National Museum’s show Anatomy is a fascinating journey through art and science, writes Duncan Macmillan

Dr Tacye Phillipson and Steven Anderson install the 1728 painting The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Willem Röell by Cornelis Troost at the National Museum of Scotland. On loan from Amsterdam Museum, it is one of more than 200 objects on display in Anatomy: A Matter of Death and Life. PIC: Neil Hanna Photography
Dr Tacye Phillipson and Steven Anderson install the 1728 painting The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Willem Röell by Cornelis Troost at the National Museum of Scotland. On loan from Amsterdam Museum, it is one of more than 200 objects on display in Anatomy: A Matter of Death and Life. PIC: Neil Hanna Photography

Anatomy: A Matter of Death and Life, National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh ****

Alan Davie, Beginning of a Far-off World, Dovecot, Edinburgh ****

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In the 18th century Edinburgh was at the centre of the development of modern medicine and in the exhibition Anatomy: a Matter of Death and Life at the National Museum we learn how medical teaching and research in the city evolved as ‘a mixture of competition and collaboration between the Town Council, the University and the professional colleges of the Surgeons and Physicians.’ The show also gives a good introduction to the earlier development of Anatomy, but as the story progresses, it becomes clear that the real question is where did the anatomists get the bodies they needed for dissection? We follow a rather giddy arc from Leonardo da Vinci to the grave robbers and the gruesome story of Burke and Hare and the West Port murders. Rather than dig up corpses to sell to the eager anatomists, dramatically shortening the supply chain these two individuals murdered a series of sixteen unfortunates who they reckoned nobody would miss.

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The exhibition opens with three sheets of Leonardo’s astonishing anatomical drawings. He was ahead of his time, but it was only a few years later, also in Italy, that the first pioneers of anatomy practised. De humane corporis fabrica by Andreas Vesalius, published in 1543, was the first great illustrated anatomical book. Vesalius was for a time professor in Padua and a little later the first anatomy theatre was built there in 1595. We still talk about operating theatres, but originally they really were performance venues. An engraving from 1610 shows how the theatre in Leiden, for instance, was a circular pit with rails for the spectators to lean on. In a macabre touch, the audience includes the skeletons, human and animal, of former dissections.

Leiden became a major centre for medicine. It was also closely linked to Edinburgh and apparently two hundred and fifty Scots studied medicine there around 1700. Part of the attraction was the teaching of Herman Boerhaave, a pioneer in the application of the new empirical science to medicine. Alexander Monro was among his students. Represented here by Alan Ramsay’s fine portrait from 1750 he had become the first professor of Anatomy in the medical school in Edinburgh thirty years earlier. Always known as primus, he was succeeded in his post by his son Alexander secundus and his grandson Alexander tertius. Such hereditary professorships were not uncommon.

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A rather gruesome painting of a public dissection from 1709 provides the answer to the question about where the bodies came from. The surgeon here is Archibald Pitcairne, a Scot who taught at both Leiden and Edinburgh, underlining the links between the two institutions, and the partly flayed corpse he is working on has a rope around its neck. He has been hung and as a part of his punishment his body donated to science. Executed criminals like him were for a long time almost the only permitted objects of anatomical dissections. Following the Burke and Hare scandal of 1828, however, the 1832 Anatomy Act allowed unclaimed bodies from hospitals and poor houses to be dissected. More recently, especially following the National Health Act of 1947, bodies bequeathed to science by individuals have provided all that are needed.

The central part of the exhibition looks primarily at medicine in Enlightenment Edinburgh, but examples of charms people wore to ward off afflictions suggest how little medical help was available for the less well off. There are also recipe books recording household remedies, another slightly less doubtful resource and invariably the province of women. Zoffany’s painting of William Hunter teaching anatomy at the Royal Academy in London is a reminder of the link of medicine with art. Artists were in fact indispensable to anatomy and Edinburgh became a major centre for the publication of illustrated medical books. Alexander Monro secundus’s magnificent Structure and Physiognomy of ‘Fishes explained and compared with those of man and other animals’ published in 1785, for instance, is a reminder of what Darwin may have learned as a medical student at Edinburgh. He is mentioned here but only in passing as we are hurried on to the main event, grave robbers, represented by a mort safe, literally a safe for a corpse, and other devices to fox the robbers. Then comes the climax, a lavish exploration of the story of Burke and Hare, their accomplices, Helen McDougal and Hares’s wife Margaret Laird, their unhappy victims and their willing customers, notably the anatomist Robert Knox. There is even a ‘scene of the crime’ drawing on the floor of the murder of Mary Docherty, the victim whose case uncovered the murders. Reflecting the intense public interest, there are portraits both of the perpetrators and of some of their sixteen victims. These are mostly fairly perfunctory, but a portrait of James Wilson, or Daft Jamie as he was known, is attributed to Andrew Geddes. This striking likeness of a patently real person brings the whole story much closer.

Mortsafe from Airth, 1831

Burke was the only one of the murderers convicted and was executed on 28th January 1829. A humorous etching by Walter Geikie of the huge crowd at his execution shows all that most people would have seen, the backs of those in front of them. Then Burke became the anatomist’s victim in his turn. His skeleton is hanging here. Seventeen wooden figures in tiny coffins found on Arthur’s Seat were perhaps an anonymous act of piety for the unburied victims. The seventeenth would have been Donald, surname unknown, whose body was the first to be sold but who may have died a natural death. All this is still a shocking story, but if the organisers really wanted to compete with Edinburgh Dungeons, they maybe missed a trick. The University Anatomy theatre where some at least of these poor people may have been cut up, is now the Talbot Rice Gallery in Old College just through the wall. More than that, there is a trap door in the pavement below opening onto a secret passage which I was always told, I think reliably, was a discreet way in for corpses intended for the theatre upstairs.

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Closely linked to all of this, the Edinburgh Infirmary was just across the road. Infirmary Street records its presence and Dovecot Studios are housed in what was formerly the Infirmary Street Baths. Dovecot’s ambitious exhibition programme currently includes a small exhibition of work by Alan Davie, an artist with whom the Studios worked on several projects. Preparatory works for some of these are included in the show. So too is a large, brilliantly coloured carpet. It is impressive but in keeping with its later date, it displays the slightly formulaic patterns that Davie used habitually from the 1970s onwards. His best work was undoubtedly from the late forties to the sixties and the real interest of this show is in the small group of the vivid, improvised works that he did in those years. Pagan Dance, for instance, from 1948 is a startling break from a fairly decorous still life from 1946, and as late as 1968 he could still paint a vividly jazzy and also rather rude picture like Good Morning My Sweet. It wasn’t all down hill after that, but his work did lose something of the vital energy which made his early work so outstanding in its time.

Anatomy: A Matter of Death and Life runs until 30 October; Alan Davie, Beginning of a Far-off World until 24 September. Both exhibitions are part of this year’s Edinburgh Art Festival, see www.edinburghartfestival.com

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Hunter Lecturing at the Royal Academy by Johann Zoffany PIC: Royal College of Physicians of London
Serpent Swallows the Fairy Tree (1971) and Mama Idol (1976) two of the paintings by Scottish artist Alan Davie (1920 – 2014) featured in Alan Davie: Beginning of a Far-off World at Dovecot Studios. PIC: Rob McDougall