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Daniel Good Rare Books and Engravings

1794 John BELL Abdominal Muscles - Anatomical Masterpiece - The Birth of Gothic

1794 John BELL Abdominal Muscles - Anatomical Masterpiece - The Birth of Gothic

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Art, anatomy, and printing in the nineteenth century were intimately linked where hand and eye unite. Where in Vesalius or Valverde, blatantly deathly figures act out life (albeit classically, mythologically inspired and often as memento mori), Bell’s very real, athletic men perform death.

Bell’s work is said to ‘Evoke the ghoulish creations of Gothic novels'. Bell's illustrations are some of the most striking in the entire literature, although not to everyone's taste: "Certainly they have the immediacy of drawings made in the dissecting rooms of late Georgian Edinburgh. Some are quite gruesome and even perverted ... In their context they are admirable..."(Roberts & Tomlinson, p. 491).

From John Bell’s series of 32 etchings

Engravings, explaining the Anatomy of the Bones, Muscles, and Joints

Published together in 1794, this plate was issued in 1791. 

"Bell's atlas of the bones, muscles, and joints, illustrated mostly with his own engravings and etchings after his own paintings, represented a new, more realistic and less idealized style of anatomical illustration"--Edell Sale 125. Heirs of Hippocrates 1197; Russell (1963) 60.

John Bell (1763-1820) was a was a Scottish anatomist and surgeon. The influence of the Enlightenment was felt throughout Scottish medicine throughout the 18th century and well into the 19th. Amongst doctors there was increasing knowledge of and interest in philosophy and the arts, and the Edinburgh Medical School in particular became attractive to students from around the world. Much of the reputation of the Medical School had been built on the teaching of anatomy. John Bell and his younger brother, Charles (q.v.) were articulate surgeons and inspiring teachers, whose artistic gifts allowed them to produce anatomical etchings of a very high quality. John Bell founded the Extramural School of Anatomy in what was later called Surgeons’ Square. Widely regarded as the founder of applied surgical anatomy, his career as a teacher was curtailed as he fell foul of the University establishment, principally James Gregory the Professor of Medicine. Bell was to become the most successful surgeon in Scotland for the first two decades of the 19th century.

Of artistic interest is that Bell's plates show his bodies as dead - rather than following an earlier convention in which the muscles are shown as contracted and functioning - and have been described as 'evoking the ghoulish creations of Gothic novels'.

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