“As an operator he was bold, but not cool, rapid without being dexterous and he had no sympathy with humanity”

This is sort of a review of the Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men exhibition at The Museum of London, but also with many other related reflections and distractions.

I visited the exhibition twice, once with my Australian scriptwriter friend, on her first trip to London when I decided the Barbican was a must see for the first time trip, and we ended up here, thankfully its impossible to weird Kitt out, she loved it.

The one thing that sticks in my mind from that visit is the obituary for this dashing surgeon, which stated:

“As an operator he was bold, but not cool, rapid without being dexterous and he had no sympathy with humanity”

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This would be a damming way of describing a seamstress, but a surgeon!

My perceived overlap to my own trade struck me again on my second visit

“The best tool for learning has always been the human body”

This is a quote from the intro panel of the exhibition and it applies as much to costume as it does to medicine, for what is clothing without the body?

Surgeons were not the only people interested in dead bodies, anatomy classes were offered at the Royal Academy of Arts and many artist forged relationships with surgeons.

Much in this exhibition mirrors Keats life;

A set of engravings by William Hogarth of the Rake’s Progress, owned by Charles Brown and are displayed in Keats House.

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On display in this exhibition is the reward of Cruelty by Hogarth from 1822, based on a man called Nero, who Having been tried and found guilty of murder, is hanged and his body taken for the “suitable” post death punishment of a public dissection.

under the print is the following rhyme:

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Behold the Villain’s dire disgrace!

Not Death itself can end.

He finds no peaceful Burial-Place,

His breathless Corse, no friend.

Torn from the Root, that wicked Tongue,

Which daily swore and curst!

Those Eyeballs from their Sockets wrung,

That glow’d with lawless Lust!

His Heart expos’d to prying Eyes,

To Pity has no claim;

But, dreadful! from his Bones shall rise,

His Monument of Shame.

This mirrors another rhyme enquiring bodies for dissection by Thomas HoodMarys Ghost gives a different perspective on grave robbing and selling of corpses.

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lock up you dead…

And so they did

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Another print with more that a hint of black humor is entitled The Resurrection – An internal view of the museum in windmill street on the last day, By Thomas Rowlandson. It shows a group of skeletons on doomsday fighting over their own bones it states:

Damn sir, that’s my legg

What this! Why if it be not my own! I know it by the lump on the skin here.

Reader i laughed out loud, but this muddle that leads me to a real treat in the form of a first edition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, first published in 1818.

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“I have love in me the likes of which you can scarcely imagine and rage the likes of which you would not believe. If I cannot satisfy the one, I will indulge the other”

This book was the first to draw on widely held fears about new scientific ideas and how these were challenging the natural order. Shelley was just 19 when she wrote Frankenstein, said to be influence by the death of her own mother,the philosopher and feminist Mary Wollstonecraft shortly after giving birth to her,and the death of their prematurely born daughter, fathered by her future husband the romantic poet and philosopher Percy Bysshe Shelley.

“How could you know what you had unleashed? How was it pieced together? Bits of thieves? Bits of murderers? Evil stitched to evil stitched to evil”

This quote from the 1994 film reminds me of a discussion I had with a fellow textile designer who was horrified to hear on explaining her work to hear the reply “ so you torture fabric” she hated textiles being described as a violent process, but for me this these words brought me to a kind of truth, there is much unmaking in textiles, much ripping, fraying, burning and cutting.

Text and textiles, stitches on cloth, paper and skin all overlap in this classic text which never loses its power to chill, no matter how many times it is reread.

It is on this book my next project will focus (via the snow queen, I will start my journey at the end of the story in the arctic and work back, but that dear children is another story)

Returning to Keats medical life

There is much In this exhibition to give you the feel of Keats medical days, you can following him about his training, object to object

From this descriptions of medical students being herded into over-subscribed dissection lectures like sheep, corresponding with the lecture cards allowing admittance to the fine artwork of the wax model, used along side real bodies in teaching anatomy.

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The exhibition explored the fact that doctors regularly risked infection from their patients – both living and dead. Keats had many opportunities to became infected with TB, the decease that killed him as he nursed both his mother and his brother up to their deaths.

Illness and death was everywhere in this world, There are many accounts of surgeons falling ill from wounds sustained in anatomy classes when their knife slipped, no wonder Keats spurned this it to write on the beauty of nature, sadly he could not leave death behind him, it followed him, took hold of him and just as he though he had shook it off took hold once again. Poor Keats, destined to be a romantic icon, living in a world of pain and death.

Keats needed no Memento Mori, he spend his life swaddled in death, but this was my first encounter with these trinkets, the purpose of which is to remind you to “remember you will die” I rather fell in love with the two models in the exhibition, half dressed in beautiful fashions that Fanny Brawne would have approved of, the other half flesh and bone. Pride and Prejudice Zombies long before it become trendy.

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The more “hand on” tools of the trade are here also, while training Keats would have had the enviable task of holding down patients while surgeons performed amputations and such with no anesthetic and dressing and re dressing infected wounds. This horror is well reflected (and well-lit) here through aprons, battered tables and tools of all types.

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Of course this let me once again back to the needles and thread in the doctors kit and how much they are like the tools of my own trade And in turn how unlike the current tools used by todays surgeons, and me, badly, in my past blog post “Trace a path that others can follow”

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It is safe to say i love this exhibition. It inspired me. And even if you are not as macabre as myself, it is very well staged, down to its very dressings, including the wonderful bespoke wallpaper showing black hearts.

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There is also a couple of medical notebooks on display, not unlike Keats own, about which a future blog must be written!

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until then, lock up your dead…

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About lholmes4keats

I have worked with Museums across the UK for the last ten years making costumes for exhibitions on everything from The Titanic to Tyrannosaurs. I have Run workshops and lectures on costume both nationally and internationally, my work has featured in exhibitions, films and theatre productions both nationally and internationally. In 2011 I curated The Needle is always at hand, an exhibition of dress based on Fanny Brawne's life while she lived at Keats House.
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