It’s always good to get in a bit of intellectual fodder amongst the mince pies over the festive season, although I wouldn’t necessarily recommend mixing the two. Not least with this fascinating exhibition at Surgeons’ Hall which would almost definitely allow you to trace the journey of any fictional mince pie down the oesophagus and beyond – and in somewhat lurid detail. “A Model Education” is a temporary exhibition in the Surgeon’s Hall Museum galleries charting the influence of art on the teaching of anatomy.

It has its roots in the Surgeons’ Hall collections, which date back to its inception some 500 years ago. Sixteenth century illustrated anatomical atlases are shown here alongside models made in later centuries from wax, plaster of Paris and even papier mache, which, despite what one’s own attempts in the school room might once have suggested, allows for deeply detailed reproduction.

There is even a somewhat unusual wooden kidney. The exhibition was the brainchild of curator Louise Wilkie, who researched the art historical aspect of anatomical illustration, scouring archives of many institutions for the exhibition. There are works on loan here, in something of a first for the museum, from the Hunterian in Glasgow, The Anatomical Museum at the University of Edinburgh, the Gordon Museum of Pathology at Kings College London, the Whipple Museum of the History of Science at Cambridge University, and the University of Aberdeen.

Each collection has specialist materials that tell the story of a practical yet often surprisingly beautiful artform that developed, loosely, in 16th century Italy when the hegemony of Ancient Greek theoretical knowledge of the anatomy, still used some 1000 years later, was broken by the likes of Vasalius, an anatomist who dissected whilst artists drew from ‘life’, tempering the somewhat brutal effect by placing the figures artfully against a classical landscape.

“They all look rather thoughtful,” laughs Thomas Elliott, Head of Learning and Interpretation. “It was about softening down the harshness of the dissection room, whereas in Britain by the late 18th to early 19th century there was a real move to get anatomical accuracy, even though the illustrations were more gruesome.”

But the anatomical depictions of Vaselius were hugely influential in the move towards observation from life and away from the more theoretical knowledge that had been handed down from Antiquity, a result of and a feeding in to the thirst for exploration of every aspect of human life in Renaissance Italy, from the depiction of the human form – and in this they did look back to the artistic refinement of the Classical era – to the mysteries of the human body.

Elliott talks me through the “star exhibits”, which include the Royal College of Surgeons’ own proof copy of Gray’s Anatomy, annotated with suggestions for amendments by Gray himself before publication in 1858. There are late 18th century wax models by the anatomist Joseph Towne, whoe worked for Guys Hospital in London. “Wax models usually came from Italy. We have a dissected head and torso – you see the head bilaterally dissected and see the outer surface on one side and the inner on other. The torso is opened up to show the main organs.

It was about showing medical students what to expect.” The issue with the historical study of anatomy, which these types of models evolved to overcome, was twofold. “Cadavers were in short supply in the 18th century. There was a moral and legal question mark over the supply of bodies, and public perception was that this was something untoward. Then, there was no refrigeration, so even if you could run an anatomical class, there would be problems of putrefaction after the body was dissected. Models had more permanence, and they were remarkably accurate.”

Elliott’s favourites are the papier mache models made by the French anatomist Thomas Louis Auzoux in the late 18th century in a factory in Normandy where he started mass production of models that were sent to medical schools around the world. “They’re stunning,” says Elliott. Surgeons’ Hall has an Auzoux mini-figure that breaks down in to 92 pieces, all labelled and designed to be passed around by students, so that they could disassemble and reassemble the figure, “and get a hands on feel for anatomy.”

“About ten years ago I was in France and found a museum dedicated to his work. They were full size papier mache human anatomy figures, made up of hundreds of detachable pieces, and other things too – a massive snail and a spider, botanical models, all highly detailed. The workmanship and level of skill was staggering.

The anatomical models were designed to be reused, so the fact that we have so many still in existence some 130 years later speaks to the craftsmanship involved.”

A Model Education, Surgeons’ Hall Museums, Nicholson Street, Edinburgh, 0131 527 1711/1600, Until 26 Jun 2022 (Closes for Christmas at 3pm on 24 Dec; reopens 5 Jan 2022) Daily 10am - 5pm, Admission included in entry ticket price to Surgeons’ Hall £8/£4.50


Critic's Choice:

THE HQ of the Scottish Ornithologists Club is housed in a lovely building just outside Aberlady, and whilst its excellent shop contains everything from bird-related Christmas decorations to binoculars and a fantastic selection of second hand bird books, its exhibition space, looking out over the reeds towards the sea, has an ever-changing roster of exhibitions, each of which interpret the bird world through different eyes. This month, and until January 9th, it’s the turn of East Lothian-based artist Darren Woodhead, who works in watercolour in the field painting birds as he encounters them in all weathers. It has always been Woodhead’s way, painting directly in watercolour, the resulting images both impressionistic and evocative, whilst having an accuracy in terms of bird behaviour and plumage that comes from a lifetime’s enthusiasm and knowledge. Many of the paintings, all of which are for sale, were completed in this last year, as we cycled through lockdowns – although Woodhead, quite literally, did so on his bike, painting supplies on his back. All local birds are here, from the brilliance of an unexpected kingfisher to the tumble of thrushes over a winter hedgerow. “Although the world has changed, my need to observe, document and record through watercolour has not. Even more so now, it is my escape, my sense of serenity and belonging. Many of the paintings have stemmed from observing birds in the garden or from “one man on his bike” trips in the field. Here, I could immerse myself in the changing seasons and the parallel natural world, and feel the ultimate connection to my subject, close to home.”

Close to Home, Scottish Ornithologists’ Club, Waterston House, Aberlady, East Lothian, 01875 871330, Until 9 Jan, Weds – Sun, 10am – 4pm, Closed 25 Dec – 2 Jan 


Don't Miss

AS around the country, An Tobar mounts its Annual Open Exhibition in time for the festive season, a celebration of artistic work from the area.  The theme this year, open to interpretation and all-comers, selected, is Hidden.  In tandem, a wonderful exhibition of painted bones and bone jewellery from the talented children of Dervaig Primary School, who have also created workshop films to illuminate the whole.

Hiddden/Bones, An Tobar, Argyll Terrace, Tobermory, Mull, 01688 302211, Until Mar 11 2022, Tues - Sat, 10am - 4pm