20 January 2013

Hunting for Bodies

A Saturday when the snow was melting to muddy slush and the glisten of frost was fading to grey, a dank and dreary day, so we went to see thousands of glittering jars in a central-heated museum in the upstairs of a grand pillar-flanked institution set in the still snow-covered Lincoln's Inn Fields. Gawping at bits of body preserved in liquid that shined like amber in the artificial light is the only thing to do on such a bitter afternoon. We came to this conclusion having visited The Hunterian Museum yesterday, a little weaker in the knees but our heads swimming with fleshy flaps of skin, fragile scraps of membrane, ragged threads of veins...

Set at the top of the portrait-lined staircase of the Royal College of Surgeons, The Hunterian Museum lures in those cursed with morbid curiosity. The first wall shows four anatomical tables - boards slightly larger than a person with human-shaped maps of arteries, veins, circulatory systems pasted onto the grain of the thick wood, carefully dissected from the dead then stuck like fine blood-embroideries - which were prepared for the diarist John Evelyn in Padua in 1646. The vast majority of all the preparations and specimens in the museum were collected and displayed by John Hunter (1728-1793). The Scottish surgeon was dyslexic, so instead of reading about his craft and learning lots of inherited silly ideas, he garnered all his knowledge from observing, cutting, dissecting, poking, bleeding, preserving as much of the living (or, indeed, dead) world as he could get his hands on. The collection at The Hunterian is evidence of this.

Dissection of executed murderers was deemed acceptable, and the slightly less acceptable practice of grave-robbing abounded, but John Hunter also performed post-mortems on may of his close friends and family members, and was himself dissected after his death. His curiosity and quest for anatomical understanding knew no bounds. One such instance of this was the case of Charles Byrne, the 'Irish Giant'. He was 7'7" and made appearances at entertainments for money throughout his life. He had apparently wanted to be buried at sea, but Hunter purchased Byrne's body for £130 and displayed the skeleton. This now looms large in the museum, next to a much smaller and deformed skeleton, that of Mr Jeffs. This had been buried for many years before a man named George Harking acquired it. Hunter then bought it at auction as he was fascinated by the rare condition Mr Jeffs had suffered from. Fibrodysplasia causes bone to form in muscles, tendons and other connective tissue, so the skeleton has bone mass where one would not expect, as though bone blossomed from branches of rib and trunk of spine.

Other treats include a four-legged chick, a two-tailed lizard, pulp from the incisor of a horse, the healing stump of an amputated leg, three-inch long coagulated lymph coughed up by a patient, graphic illustrations of lithotomy, the beak of a squid which was caught by the naturalist Joseph Banks during Captain Cook's first voyage... Banks gave the beak to Hunter and the rest of the squid was eaten by Cook's crew.

And there are many, many foetuses. Of a rhesus monkey, an armadillo, a porcupine, an aardvark, a guinea pig, unidentified rodents. And humans. I struggled to look. Then I couldn't look away. Three-, four-, and five-month-formed foetuses. Then larger jars for the couple of eight-month-formed, then larger still for the one full-term baby that had not had a chance to escape the womb and breathe it's first breath. Forever in a bell-jar, oddly calm and blank-faced. Next to this was a case holding quintuple foetuses from a premature birth. Five months formed then born too soon. The local doctor, John Hull, was told he could take the foetuses but not the placenta. This was burnt. Heaven forbid he take a placenta.

I would recommend watching this short video of a very cool dude presenting a glimpse of the museum. The warm glow of all life fixed yet floating in hundreds and hundreds of jars, glass reflecting awe-struck eyes, draws pulse-twitching, blood-pumping, air-gulping beings into a treasure trove of fleshy gems. And it's free.

1 January 2013

Modern Love

I could, of course, write reams and reams prompted by the well-promoted, excellently curated exhibition on the Pre-Raphaelites I went to a couple of months ago at Tate Britain. I could write about the muses, Mariana, and the watery Ophelia. I could write about the detail and illustriuous list of greats in Ford Madox Brown's painting The Seeds and Fruits of English Poetry. I could write about the staggeringly darkly beautiful wardrobe created by Philip Webb and Edward Burne Jones as a wedding present for William and Jane Morris. The front panels depict an image from Chaucer's The Prioress's Tale; a rather anti-Semitic yarn about a young hymn-singing boy who has his throat cut by Jews. Interesting choice of decoration for a wedding gift. But instead I will write about The Death of Chatterton by Henry Wallis. Partly because I have always loved this painting, but mostly because there seemed to be odd coincidences surrounding it.

Chatterton, that tragic Romantic hero, the poet who penned pseudo-medieval verses and committed suicide at the unfathomably young age of seventeen. [And if it wasn't suicide, it was death from an overdose of arsenic used as self-medication for a venereal disease, so equally Romantic.] Chatterton who ghoulishly languishes on his dishevelled bed wearing bright purple breeches in Wallis's depiction. Chatterton, painted by Wallis, modelled by the poet and novelist George Meredith. Meredith was married to Mary Ellen Nicolls, the daughter of Thomas Love Peacock (the rather overlooked yet most eccentrically excellent novelist), but she ran off with Wallis two years after her husband was painted as Chatterton. Scandal. However, it did lead to a rather great work: Modern Love. Meredith wrote fifty sixteen-line sonnets about the demise of a marriage. Arguably the demise of his first marriage to Mary Ellen.

'Fast, sweet and golden shows the marriage-knot.
Dear guests, you now have seen love's corpse-light shine.'

The sonnets are narrated by the husband and are at once both dramatic and domestic, intimate and heartbreaking.

'I pluck the flower, and smell it, and revive
The time when in her eyes I stood alive.'

The boy I know best once wrote an eight-thousand word essay on this novella in verse. He then used them as a starting point for one of his band's songs. I think of the Romantics and endless sonnets whenever I hear them play Meredith.

And so to yet more coincidental oddities. Just after I went to the exhibition and marvelled at The Death of Chatterton, I began my obsession with Nigel Nicolson's Portrait of a Marriage. This is an account of his mother and father's marriage. His mother and father just so happen to be Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson. Their story is told in different sections, with great swathes taken from Vita's autobiography, followed by texts added by Nigel Nicolson who comments on events using his own memories, various letters, and Vita's diaries. It is, quite simply, wonderful. They had an unconventional marriage, yet it worked for them. Vita fell in love with bright distracting glittering figures frequently, passionately and obsessively. Most of these figures were women. Harold had his own dalliances. Yet family, literature, love and gardening fused them together until Vita's death. They were happy oh so more often than they were unhappy. They were separate free spirits, but they made a whole. A whole marriage. I thought it interesting reading about this marriage in light of what I had discovered about George Meredith (who I had looked into further on seeing him posed as Chatterton), but it wasn't until I was a little way through the first part that I had one of those eyebrow-raising moments. Vita is describing her seventeenth year in her autobiography, just before she met Harold but after she has first become hopelessly enamoured with Violet Keppel, and she writes 'I must have been suffering from a bad attack of Weltschmerz, and indeed I had just finished a play on Chatterton of quite unequalled gloom'.

There is no further reference to Chatterton in this work, but Vita did indeed write Chatterton: A Drama in Three Acts. A play running to 60-odd pages and her first published work. Unfortunately I have not read it myself so cannot comment on the content, but I do find it extraordinary that everything is connected and it all overwhelmed me in a wave. The Romantics, Chatterton, Wallis, Meredith, Modern Love, the intricacies and fascinations of marriage, Vita and Harold...

My not very good photograph of a photograph of Vita and her penmanship

NB Weltschmerz, ( German: “world grief”) the prevailing mood of melancholy and pessimism associated with the poets of the Romantic era that arose from their refusal or inability to adjust to those realities of the world that they saw as destructive of their right to subjectivity and personal freedom—a phenomenon thought to typify Romanticism.