Category Archives: Marieke Hendriksen

A forgotten chapter in natural history: the taxidermy of man

By Marieke Hendriksen

Having written a book on eighteenth-century anatomical collections, I know a thing or two about historical techniques for preserving (parts of) the human body. As I am interested in natural history collections more generally, I also did some research on the preservation of animal bodies, and even took a taxidermy course myself. However, recently I realised that the preservation of human and animal bodies were historically even closer connected than I had imagined. Yet ideas about which parts of the human body could and should be preserved, and how, diverged greatly, particularly when it comes to skin, or taxidermy. Taxidermy, from the Greek τάξις (taxis) and  δέρμα (derma – I am adding those for people who may not read Greek script), literally means ‘the arranging of skin’.

Fragment of an engraving of the anatomical theatre of Leiden University, early 17th century, showing visitors who appear to discuss a human skin. Contemporary engraving by Willem Swanenburgh; drawing by Jan van ‘t Woudt (Johannes Woudanus).

There are a few known cases of attempts to preserve human skins in their entirety before 1800 – for example, there was a human skin in the Leiden anatomical theatre in the seventeenth century – but that wasn’t stuffed, and such attempts appear to have been altogether unsuccessful. If human skin was preserved, it was mostly small pieces, which were used to study things like skin colour and structure, tattoos, or pathologies. By the end of the eighteenth century, the preservation of an entire human skin in a lifelike pose was of little interest to anatomists. Normal internal anatomy would be studied through dissection and the creation of preparations and skeletons, and pathologies of the skin could be preserved by making preparations of small sections of skin. As healthy skin can be studied perfectly easily in live subjects, there was little reason to pursue the taxidermy of man. This is reflected in anatomical handbooks like Thomas Pole’s 1790 Anatomical Instructor (reprinted in 1813), which gave detailed directions for numerous methods to preserve parts of the human and animal body, including entire heads and foetuses, but did not say anything about how to preserve only skin. On the contrary, Pole advised to remove the cuticle from a head that was to be preserved,  as this would give ‘a brightness to the complexion’.[1]

Jeremy Bentham’s ‘preserved’ head is not on display, but stored in an environmentally controlled safe. Copyright: UCL.

However, with the growing popularity of taxidermy – the mounting of animal skins in lifelike poses – and the rise of physical anthropology in the early nineteenth century, there were a number of experiments with human taxidermy, the most famous of which was probably Jeremy Bentham’s unsuccessful attempt to have his body made into an ‘auto-icon’ after this death. Then there was ‘el negro’ or ‘the negro of Banyoles’, whose faith was described by Dutch author Frank Westerman in his 2004 book El Negro en ik (‘El negro and I’). The remains of this young African San man were stuffed by two taxidermists, the French Verreaux brothers, in the 1830s, and remained on display in a local Museum in Banyoles, Spain, until 1997. Eventually his remains were send for burial in Botswana in 2000. Jules Pierre (1807-1837) and Jean Baptiste Édouard (1810-1868) Verreaux created taxidermy specimens of exotic animals for their father’s Parisian shop in natural historical objects, Maison Verreaux, and, as ‘el negro’ shows, used human bones for his models.

The head of the figure in ‘Arab Courier attacked by lions’ sits detached from the rest of the diorama during restoration work. Copyright: Nate Smallwood | Tribune – Review

For a long time, ‘el negro’ was the only known case of nineteenth-century human taxidermy. However, a recent discovery suggests that the Verreaux brothers used human remains more frequently. In 2016, a human skull was discovered in a mannequin that was part of an ensemble made by the Verreaux studio. Formerly known as “Arab Courier Attacked by Lions”, it was restored and returned to display at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh under the title “Lion Attacking a Dromedary”. Although apparently no attempt was made to use human skin in the Pittsburgh diorama, these cases show that there was little reticence when it came to using human materials for taxidermy displays in the nineteenth century, particularly when the human in question was considered ‘exotic’. This is supported by the fact that a popular contemporary taxidermy manual, aimed specifically at museums and travelers, opened with a paragraph on the impossibility of applying taxidermy to man successfully. The book, written by the naturalist Sarah Bowdich (née Wallis, later Lee, 1791-1856) saw six editions – the first in 1820, the last in 1843.

After listing the necessary tools and giving a number of recipes for the cleansing and preservation fluids used in taxidermy, Bowdich opened the section on ‘the preparation of mammalia’ with a somewhat disappointed-sounding statement:

1. Of man 

All the efforts of man to restore the skin of his fellow creature to its natural form and beauty, have hitherto been fruitless: the trials which have been made have only produced mis-shapen, hideous objects, and so unlike nature, that they have never found a place in our collections.

Bowdich went on to discuss the life-like wet preparations made by Amsterdam anatomist Frederik Ruysch (1638  – 1731) as ‘without doubt (…) very useful to science’, before switching to a description of a more successful practice – the preservation of skeletons. Given the tragic history of ‘el negro’ and many other violently obtained human remains in museum collections, it is a cold comfort that the naturalists of the nineteenth century failed at the taxidermy of their ‘fellow creature’.

[1] Pole, Thomas. The Anatomical Instructor ; or an Illustration of the Modern and Most Approved Methods of Preparing and Preserving the Different Parts of the Human Body and of Quadrupeds by Injection, Corrosion, Maceration, Distention, Articulation, Modelling, &C. London: Couchman & Fry, 1790: p.84.

What’s in a name: Plaster of Paris

By Marieke Hendriksen

One of the problems we face as historians studying and reconstructing recipes is that the names describing ingredients, tools, and materials change over time, and that the meaning of terms itself changes over time. This is even the case with relatively recent recipes and materials that are in theory unchanged as I recently discovered. As part of my research for the ARTECHNE project, I recently looked at instructions for making anatomical casts from plaster from 1791.

Painted plaster cast of a large fibroma of the jaw, 1830s. Courtesy Surgeons' Hall Museums, RCSEd.
Painted plaster cast of a large fibroma of the jaw, 1830s. Courtesy Surgeons’ Hall Museums, RCSEd.

The creation of anatomical casts and models using plaster of Paris became increasingly popular towards the end of the eighteenth century, fuelled by the omnipresence of plaster in the visual arts and interior decoration, and the increasing importance of pathology and later physiognomy within the study of medicine. The latter meant that medical men were looking for durable three-dimensional ways to preserve diseased bodies and body parts that could not be preserved otherwise (e.g. in a preparation), either because decay could not be stopped or because the patient was still alive.

Johan Zoffany, The Portraits of the Academicians of the Royal Academy, 1771-72
Johan Zoffany, The Portraits of the Academicians of
the Royal Academy, 1771-72. Note the plaster models of antique statues around the room.

In his 1790 book The Anatomical Instructor, physician Thomas Pole (1753-1829) not only gave advice on how to make anatomical preparations and drawing, but also included over fifty pages on how to create, colour, repair and maintain plaster casts and models. Pole started the chapter on modelling with outlining the relevance of the quality of the plaster of Paris, or calcined alabaster, that was to be used. He explained that

Illustration of how to make a cast of a diseased bone from Pole's 1790 'Anatomical Instructor'
Illustration of how to make a mould of a diseased bone from Pole’s 1790 ‘Anatomical Instructor’

“…that of a middling price is used for making of moulds; the finer sort is for casts, to be poured first into the mould, when properly prepared; after it has formed a layer of about half an inch, more or less, according to circumstances, then the coarser sort is to be used to fill up the mould, or to give it sufficient thickness.”[1]

But exactly what were the various qualities of plaster for sale in London in the 1790s made of? The term ‘calcined alabaster’ tells us little, as alabaster was and is a collective noun that designates both various kinds of light-coloured, translucent and soft stone used mainly for carving decorative artefacts (often the minerals gypsum or calcite – the former much softer than the latter), and a specific compact and fine-grained variety of gypsum. In the decades after Pole’s publication, the French chemist Antoine François de Fourcroy (1755 –1809) would distinguish nine kinds of calcareous sulfate, one of which was sulfate of lime or common gypsum. In an 1810 ‘dictionary of the arts’ Fourcroy’s sulfate of lime or common gypsum was described as follows:

“Sulphat of lime, or common gypsum, or plaster-stone. This substance is white, more or less inclining to grey, interspersed with small brilliant crystals, easily cut with a knife. it is found disposed in Paris. We shall hereafter find, that it is not pure selenite, but owes its most valuable property, as plaster, to the admixture of another kind of earth. (…) Calcareous sulphat is likewise found dissolved in waters, as in the well-waters of Paris; it is never pure, but always combined with some other earthy salt, with base lime or magnesia. This salt has no apparent degree of taste. It decrepitates if a sudden heat be applied to it; it is then of an opaque white, in which state it is called fine plaster, or plaster of Paris: by this calcination it loses about twenty in one hundred.”[2]

Entrance to the Montmartre gypsum quarry. Probably early 19th century, artist unknown.
Entrance to the Montmartre gypsum quarry. Probably early 19th century, artist unknown.

As this fragment suggests, plaster of Paris indeed derives its name from a large and very pure gypsum deposit at the Montmartre and Menilmontant hills in Paris – there were plaster quarries at this site at least as early as the year 500. This led “calcined gypsum” (roasted gypsum or gypsum plaster) to be commonly known as “plaster of Paris”, even after the exhausted quarries were converted into Montmartre cemetery and the Buttes de Chaumot gardens respectively in the mid-nineteenth century. Although not all plaster came from Paris at the time Pole was writing, there is a fair chance that much high-quality plaster was indeed plaster from Paris.

Today, gypsum plaster, or plaster of Paris, no longer comes from Paris, but is still produced by heating powdered gypsum to about 150 °C. When mixed with water, this forms a paste that will harden within minutes, producing an exothermic reaction, which means it warms up. You can easily buy ‘plaster of Paris’ from artist’s supplies shops and online retailers, but none of these mention the exact chemical composition. Yet before I (or anyone else) can try my hand at reconstructing Pole’s instructions I will need to find out whether the best, finest plaster of Paris still contains a percentage of lime or magnesia, what the ‘coarser varieties’ that Pole described contained, and whether these are still available.

This project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement No 648718), and was supported by the Wellcome Trust (grant number 203403/Z/16/Z).

[1] Pole, Thomas. The Anatomical Instructor ; or an Illustration of the Modern and Most Approved Methods of Preparing and Preserving the Different Parts of the Human Body and of Quadrupeds by Injection, Corrosion, Maceration, Distention, Articulation, Modelling, &C. London: Couchman & Fry, 1790: p. 202-3.

[2] Wilkes, John. Encyclopaedia Londinensis, Or, Universal Dictionary of Arts. Vol. 4. London: J. Adlard, 1810: p. 230.

 

Creating and integrating a database – work in progress

By Marieke Hendriksen

As mentioned in the post introducing the ARTECHNE project at Utrecht University last month, we are in the process of creating a database containing recipes, artist handbooks, and art theoretical texts that can clarify the development of the use of the term ‘technique’, as well as related terms referring to processes of making and doing. The database is linked to Geographical Information Software (GIS), thus creating an online historical semantic map of ‘technique’. Such maps are more than merely nice illustrations; they can reveal connections that remain hidden otherwise.

We are in the fortunate position where we can build the database on an existing one, namely the excellent Colour ConText database. However, we do not simply want to offer a copy of the Colour ConText database, we want to integrate it with other sources on artisanal practices and theories, such as recipes, books of secrets, art theoretical texts, and artist handbooks, from the period 1500-1900, in Latin, Dutch, German, English, French, Italian and Spanish. The entire database has to be searchable with advance searches, allowing users to search full text for occurrences of terms, in particular geographical or linguistic areas and periods, or to trace the changing uses and meanings of particular terms over time, linking various forms of terms and different terms with a similar meaning in relational tables and glossaries.

Sneak preview of the new database website
Preview of the new database website

For example, if we want to know how instructions for making paint have changed in the low countries between 1600 and 1900, we want to be able to select all available sources from that period and area and search them for imperatives, nouns, measurements, and particular ingredients. We also want to be able to distinguish between printed and manuscript sources, artist handbooks and household recipes books, and ideally we want to be able to search annotations and marginalia too, as well as differences between various editions of the same work. That means a lot of different parameters have to be specified for each source, and everything we include must be carefully checked before it is added.

One of the problems we encountered when selecting the first sources we wanted to add was the low reliability of Optical Character Recognition software when used on early modern printed sources – a problem I have written about on my own blog before. We do not just want to combine existing digitized sources in our database, but also to add texts that have not been digitized and made searchable thus far. However, that often involves lengthy correction processes. One of the solutions we are considering is crowd sourcing such corrections. Fortunately, we can also add many digitized sources that are available under Creative Commons licenses (i.e. from the Digital Library of the Netherlands), and various researchers have contacted us to discuss adding their own datasets to the database.

The first edition of the database is now online – have a look at http://artechne.hum.uu.nl!  Please note that this is a first version, and that the database will be improved and continue to grow for the duration of the project. Over the next few months, we will focus on increasing searchability and adding new sources. If you have any questions or suggestions, please contact us at artechne[at]uu.nl.

Finally, we will also explore the options of maintaining the database after the end of the ARTECHNE project, for example by depositing the datasets or even the entire infrastructure with an archival institution.

The ERC ARTECHNE project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement No 648718) and is a cooperation of Utrecht University and University of Amsterdam.

Introducing ARTECHNE – Technique in the Arts, 1500-1950

By Sven Dupré and Marieke Hendriksen

Gerard Dou, Man Writing by an Easel. c. 1631-32. 31.5 x 25 cm, oil on panel. Private collection
Gerard Dou, Man Writing by an Easel. c. 1631-32. 31.5 x 25 cm, oil on panel. Private collection

What is ‘technique’ in the visual and decorative arts? And how is ‘technique’ transmitted? Those are the central questions of ARTECHNE, a five-year project supported by the European Research Council, and led by Sven Dupré, that started at Utrecht University and the University of Amsterdam in September 2015. ARTECHNE is the acronym of the project. Its full title is “Technique in the Arts: Concepts, Practices, Expertise, 1500-1950”.

To answer these questions an interdisciplinary team of researchers with backgrounds in history of art, science and technology, based at the Descartes Center for the History and Philosophy of the Sciences and the Humanities in Utrecht umanitiesworks together with conservators and conservation scientists at the Atelier Building / NICAS in Amsterdam.

One aim of the ARTECHNE Project is to write the history of the conservation studios or laboratories and the research uniting conservation, art history and science in the Atelier Building. This field of research (or is it a nascent discipline?) is now often called technical art history.

‘Technique’ is a fundamental concept in technical art history, but its meaning has evolved over time. By providing a history of technique in the arts, the ARTECHNE project will help to reflect on both historical and current knowledge practices in technical art history, conservation and restoration. For example, one of the four sub-projects focuses on the ways in which new visualization technologies and science-based methods (such as X-rays, black-and-white photography and chemical analysis of paint cross sections) shaped art history and conservation practice in the first half of the twentieth century.

Daniel V. Thompson's 1954 translation of Cennino Cennini's Libro dell'Arte.
Daniel V. Thompson’s 1954 translation of Cennino Cennini’s Libro dell’Arte.

The ARTECHNE Project starts from the observation that the transmission of ‘technique’ in the arts has been a conspicuous ‘black box’ resisting analysis. The tools of the humanities used to study the transmission of ideas and concepts are insufficient when it comes to understanding the transmission of something as non-propositional and non-verbal as ‘technique’.

Therefore, one sub-project, in which PhD candidate Thijs Hagendijk works closely together with conservation and restoration specialists at the Atelier Building, undertakes the experimental reconstruction of historical recipes to open the black box of the transmission of technique in the visual and decorative arts. The aim of these reconstructions is understanding the textual culture of the early modern workshop and the role of recipes in practices. Did early modern people learn from texts to do things? And if so, in which ways did they use recipes? We primarily look at artisans, but this was a hybrid identity at the time.

The historical sources of the ARTECHNE project are foremost recipes, or how-to instructions. We should also reflect on why and how these sources have come down to us. Jenny Boulboullé in her sub-project investigates the creation of editions and translations of premodern and early modern texts, such as the editions and translations of Cennino Cennini by Mary Merrifield and Daniel Thompson, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. While such editions are still used by conservators and restorers today, one point of attention in ARTECHNE is the role of conservation and restoration projects, painting practice and reconstructions in these editorial projects.

Finally, in response to one of the main questions driving the ARTECHNE Project, Marieke Hendriksen writes a history of the shifting meanings of the term ‘technique’ in the arts and sciences. To support her research and that of the other project members, building on ColourConText hosted at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, she will create a database containing recipes as well as art theoretical texts that can clarify the development of the use of the term ‘technique’ – a neologism in the vernacular in the mid-eighteenth century – as well as related terms referring to processes of making and doing. The database (which will be hosted at the ARTECHNE website) will be linked to GIS software, thus creating an online historical semantic map of ‘technique’.

Marieke Hendriksen and Thijs Hagendijk have taken up their posts in the first months of 2016. We look forward to the arrival of Mariana Pinto (from the conservation and materials science program at UCL Qatar) and Jenny Boulboullé (from the Making and Knowing Project at Columbia University)  over the summer, and to earnestly start with the reconstructions in the fall. Tonny Beentjes, leader of the metal conservation program at the University of Amsterdam, and Maartje Stols-Witlox, lecturer of paintings conservation, have joined the ARTECHNE Project. We are still looking to appoint a glass expert. ARTECHNE is supported by program manager Jill Briggeman, who also maintains the website.

This website, www.artechne.nl, is now online. Over the next few months, we will add more information about the project in blogs, and we list events, like the monthly Technical Art History Colloquium. Sign up for updates on the website and follow us on Twitter! (@ArtechneProject)

The ERC ARTECHNE project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement No 648718) and is a cooperation of Utrecht University and University of Amsterdam.