Of diamonds and cavorting skeletons
Published on: 14 April 2011 Author: Clare Wigfall
The critically acclaimed writer Clare Wigfall became our fifth Writer in Residence back in 2011. In this blog Clare talks skeletons, victorian surgical monstrosities and finding writing inspiration everywhere.
Earlier this week I had the great fortune to see, and hold, some incredibly rare and beautiful books. These were volumes plucked from the library of the Edinburgh Royal College of Surgeons. Normally they are stored below stairs in carefully humidified conditions, dust gathering along the edges of the pages, rarely opened to view. On Monday however, in connection with a workshop on artists's books organised as part of the Edinburgh International Science Festival, the books were brought upstairs to the Fellows' Library for us workshop participants to view.
The history of medicine has always fascinated me. I took a course on the social history of mental illness when I was doing my Masters, and remember catching a reading by Professor Roy Porter in a Waterstone's basement shortly before his death. I'm not in the least squeamish at the site of shelves of grey-dull innards and diseased body bits suspended and silent in glassy jars of yellowed preserving fluid. In fact, one of the museums I always point London visitors to is the Hunterian Collection - now I know where to send Edinburgh visitors. Some might think it a trifle macabre, but I find it absolutely intriguing to see what lies beneath our skin and to try to better understand how our bodies work the way they do. Besides, there's often an extraordinary inadvertent beauty in medical diagrams, despite their having been created not as artworks but for scientific study. Take this engraving - of arteries, I think it is:
Or the curious cartographic quality of this anatomical study:
I've had a passion for making books since I was tiny. As a youngster I spent many happy hours creating miniature hand-illustrated volumes. So of course this workshop was always going to appeal to my tastes, but I had no idea how inspiring I would find it.
To go back to the books - oh! - they were so incredible. From enormous elephant folio editions of engraved anatomical atlases, to leather-bound volumes containing dense script and intricate fold-out illustrations. I had to hold my breath as I was handed a 15th century illuminated Book of Hours. I don't think I've ever held anything so old. I felt quite awed as I turned those waxy vellum pages and marvelled at the gold-leafed mystical creatures galloping through the marginalia. Holding that medieval volume in my hands reminded me that there really is something magical about the book as a physical object that an electronic book could never hope to replicate.
Perhaps my favourite book of the day though was Frederik Ruysch's (1638-1731) Thesaurus Animalium Primus dating from the early 18th century. Ruysch was a Dutch anatomist and creator of one of the most famous anatomical collections of his time. What is particularly interesting about him is that while he was a scientist foremost, eager to shine a light on our understanding of the human body, he also took great pains to make artistic spectacles of his specimens. He is known for his elaborate dioramas, beautifully documented in the Thesaurus via Cornelius Huyberts' incredible engravings (the original dioramas have long decomposed, sadly). With the help of his painter daughter, Ruysch manufactured bizarre scenes of cavorting foetal skeletons posed atop mountains of enbalmed organs. Mayflies grasped between their skeletal fingers hint at the transience of life, violins are worked from hardened arteries, and huge-socketed baby skeletons weep into handkerchiefs of tissue-thin preserved brain matter. They're freaky and uncanny and totally amazing!
Ruysch eventually sold his specimen collection to Peter the Great who took it to Moscow. I won't post photographs of the preserved specimens here for fear of alarming anyone of a nervous disposition; there might be some of you out there who don't necessarily want to encounter a lace-clad spirit-preserved infant foot balancing upon a chunk of syphilitic skull. Fair enough. Suffice to say, if you google you can find them.
Inspired by Ruysch, when we were let loose in the museum's Pathology Collection to make drawings for the artists's books we were to create, I turned my attention to drawing a parade of tiny skeletons. I was excited to try out a new technique our tutor Susie Wilson demonstrated of drawing using carbon paper. It creates a print-like quality that captures a lovely blackness of line. What I particularly liked was the fact that you are effectively drawing blind as you only get to see the image you've created once you finally pull back the carbon paper. I like that element of surprise and the honesty it lends to the drawings.
By the end of the workshop, I'd finished my little book. A map book in form, with tissue pages that open outwards from a careful origami of folds. I was quite happy with how it turned out:
Walking home that afternoon through the glorious bright Edinburgh sun, I felt something underfoot and lifted my shoe, expecting to find a piece of gravel. Instead I discovered a diamond wedged between the ridges of my Converse. Sparkling in the sunlight. It reminded me of that Paul Simon song. Well, I imagine it was only a paste jewel. Maybe even plastic. Still, it was an unexpected sight.
Just before I go, I wanted to point you to a story that all this talk of pickled body bits has brought to mind. I haven't read it for years, but it's from a collection my editor recommended me to read way back when he commissioned my first book. The story is called Solid Geometry and you'll find it opening Ian McEwan's First Love, Last Rites. I think this was his first published book, one of only two story collections he's published, as far as I'm aware. I remember the stories as being very odd and very dark. I wish he'd write some more.