Freak Anatomist

John Mullan

  • The Giant, O'Brien by Hilary Mantel
    Fourth Estate, 211 pp, £14.99, September 1998, ISBN 1 85702 884 8

In the Council Room of the Royal College of Surgeons hangs the portrait by Joshua Reynolds of the 18th-century surgeon and anatomist John Hunter. It has been much darkened by the bitumen content of Reynolds’s paint, and restoration work in the Fifties has not been able to prevent the fading into the surrounding gloom of many of its supporting details. Only Hunter’s face, once bathed in light, is still fairly clear. One can just make out that he is depicted at his writing table, caught, we are to imagine, in the midst of his thoughts. We cannot be shown his actual researches (it took Hogarth and Rowlandson to stoop, with the satirist’s relish, to the horrors of the anatomy room). Rather, we are to see the enlightenment to which the researches led. Hunter’s left hand is held pensively to his chin and his eyes look up, far over the viewer’s head, apparently seeing only his new knowledge of Nature’s works.

We can recover the details from the surrounding darkness. William Sharp, a friend of Hunter, made an engraving from the painting in 1788, soon after it was finished, and there is also a small, fine-enamel-on-copper copy by Henry Bone, made ten years later. From these we can see more clearly not only what Reynolds saw, but how Hunter saw himself. He is dressed in the rumpled velvet suit of the intellectual in the privacy of his study. On his table the ink is uncorked; his right hand dangles, holding his pen. Hunter had been extremely reluctant to sit for Reynolds, but Sharp cajoled him into it. (The engraver’s enthusiasm is itself a sign of Hunter’s status: there was a good market for the two-guinea prints that Sharp sold of his copy of the Reynolds portrait.) Hunter finally seems to have been persuaded into taking some kind of interest in the enterprise, for he must have expressed his opinions about the details that the artist would paint in once the portrait was finished. On the table and in an alcove behind it are objects chosen with what can only have been the thoughtfulness of the sitter to declare his achievements.

Propped open is the anatomist’s own drawing-book, displaying, on the verso, six fore-limbs, arranged in descent from the most specialised (the horse), through deer, pig, dog, monkey to the most ‘primitive’, man. On the recto are six skulls, another ‘graded series’ running down from the skull of a European human to an aboriginal human, and then chimpanzee, monkey, dog, crocodile. Next to this folio are two manuscript volumes: a Natural History of Vegetables and a Natural History of Fossils, signifying the range of Hunter’s researches, and both presumably intended for eventual publication. Under a bell-jar is a strange, plant-like object whose once delicate tracery is clear only in Sharp’s engraving. It is a ‘bronchial tree’: a fragile cast made, with great skill, by injecting wax into a lung and corroding away the tissue to leave visible the injected passages. Perhaps its odd beauty appealed to the painter too, but it was undoubtedly included as evidence of the anatomist’s technical accomplishment. Above is another jar, containing a specimen that only a few of Hunter’s fellow professionals would have recognised: the metacarpal bone of an ass showing a successful bone graft. Here, for those able to recognise what they saw, was the work of Hunter the pioneering experimentalist.

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