Death and the Doctor: Dying, Burying the Afterlife in the Seventeenth Century

Death & the Doctor Exhibition_Email Invite

The exhibition Death and the Doctor: Dying, Burying the Afterlife in the Seventeenth Century curated by Dr Lucy Gwynn is now is display in the Tower Gallery until 1st November 2019.

This exhibition looks at the experience and ideas of death, the corpse and posthumous life in seventeenth–century England. Its starting point is the writing of Norwich physician and author Sir Thomas Browne, whose extraordinary essay Urne-Buriall is an extended meditation on death, and particularly on what is left of us after we are gone: decaying remains, scraps of memories, and the possibility of eternal life. The exhibition looks at deaths, funerals, and resurrections as described in the sonorous language of the Book of Common Prayer, and in the works of Browne, Shakespeare and Donne.

Alongside these, it presents the seventeenth-century fascination with the funerary customs of other cultures, from pyramids to catacombs to funeral pyres. Through contemporary illustrations, it explores the use of the dead body in the rapidly developing science of anatomy and it introduces Browne’s remarkable writings through Eton College Library’s fine collection of editions of his works.

Displayed in the exhibition are the following four visually exciting works which we hope will entice you to book a visit…

5Lachrymae 2

Lachrymae lachrimarum, or, the spirit of tears by Joshua Sylvester et al. (London 1612)

A compilation of poems mourning the death of Prince Henry that includes verse by John Donne. This volume was designed to emphasise the shock and grief provoked by Henry’s sudden death. Each right-hand page is bordered with grinning skeletons, and each left-hand page printed entirely in black except for Henry’s crest.

 

STBL Skull on plinth

© Sir Thomas Browne Library, Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital

Wax cast of the skull of Sir Thomas Browne, on loan from the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital

‘To be gnaw’d out of our graves, to have our sculls made drinking bowls, and our bones made into pipes…’

Browne’s coffin was discovered in the 19th century in the church where he was buried. The sexton took the skull and sold it, fulfilling Browne’s fear of his remains being exposed to undignified display. The skull was reinterred in the 1920s, after several casts, including this one, were made.

 

9Willis

Detail from Cerebri anatome by Thomas Willis (London 1664)

Willis’s study of the brain is one of a genre of meticulously detailed anatomical studies produced in England in the late 17th century. In focussing on single elements or organs of the body, Willis and his colleagues continued the trend begun by Vesalius, finding marvels in anatomical details rather than treating the whole as an indivisible microcosm of God’s creation.

 

8Ruysch

Omnia opera anatomico-medico-chirurgici by Frederik Ruysch (Amsterdam, 1737)

Ruysch was a doctor in 17th-century Amsterdam who specialised in the wax preservation of soft tissue for medical study, crucial in an age when specimens were rare and refrigeration non-existent. He arranged his specimens in artful tableaux which were, he claimed, meant to persuade people to overcome their natural revulsion towards the dead body. Like the display of Browne’s skull in a pathological museum, Rusch’s tableaux occupy an uncomfortable – even distressing – territory where scientific investigation and morbid exploitation overlap.

Death and the Doctor: Open until 1st November 2019. To book a free appointment to visit Monday-Friday, 10-4pm, contact us at collections@etoncollege.org.uk or 01753 370590.

Lucy Gwynn, Deputy Librarian and Deputy Director of Collections

Lucy Cordingley, Exhibitions and Access Co-Ordinator

‘A great sense of mystery and tension’: Sophie Macfadyen responds to Gainsborough’s ‘A Rocky Road with Trees’

On 28th January 2019, 11 A-Level students and members of the History of Art Club from St George’s, Ascot visited the Watercolours exhibition in the Verey Gallery. Prior to their visit the A-Level students researched selected works on display and prepared presentations which each student delivered in front of the artwork to the Club. 
Below is Sophie Macfadyen’s presentation on A Rocky Road with Trees by Thomas Gainsborough.
Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788). A Rocky Road with Trees, 1785, black and white chalk, with stump.

Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788). A Rocky Road with Trees, 1785, black and white chalk, with stump.

This sketch is of a lone figure walking along a winding path into the distance. The path leads the figure as well as the viewer’s eyes through some woodland. There are buildings in the distance to the right which appear to be a manor house or farm and tall mountains beyond them. It is evening and the lighting gives the illusion that the moon is shining bright, illuminating the scene and dappling light through the trees and onto the ground.

The use of black and white alone in the picture gives a sense of eeriness as light and shadow are emphasised. It is the darkness that surrounds the figure that puts us on edge because it creates mystery as to what could be lurking around the corner. The open space which we see through also makes the figure seem vulnerable as they are alone in a wide, open space meaning that anyone and anything can jump out at them as well as be watching them, as the viewer is. The fact that the figure is so far away makes us feel helpless and as if we are about to watch something bad happen.

The tree on the right also adds to the eeriness of the scene as it twists and contorts as if to reach out to the figure. The idea of the trees having life and being able to watch and reach out to the lone figure gives the effect of the trees closing in on the person and trapping them. As well as this, the ground itself is also wrinkled and writhed making it seem like old skin, adding to the life-likeness of the landscape.

The use of linear strokes in the same direction creates a sense of unity. By pressing both hard and gently with the chalk, Gainsborough creates chiaroscuro, adding to the unsettling nature of the scene. This medium enables him to quickly and easily sketch out a complete scene either as a study for a painting or, as many were, just for fun. Overall, a great sense of mystery and tension is created, intriguing the viewer and drawing us in.

Gainsborough created over 1,100 drawings much like this in his lifetime. He had a huge interest in nature and depicting it. He often painted at night by candlelight which explains why the majority of his landscapes (especially the sketches) use tenebrism and appear to be set at dusk/night. This sketch was created at the end of his life therefore his technique and style is well established and the picture echoes his earlier works in both composition and subject. He is most famous for landscape compositions as well as detailed and delicate portraiture. His landscapes are typically of English countryside and are very effective at drawing the viewer’s eyes into the depth of the scene, usually via a path or open expanse of land. This technique is evident amongst many of his paintings and sketches such as Road From Market and Landscape in Suffolk. Gainsborough is renowned as being one of the best British landscape artists in history and I believe that he certainly deserves this title.

Sophie Macfadyen, St. George’s, Ascot

 

 

 

Current exhibitions in the Eton College Collections: the generosity of benefactors.

We have an engaging and varied exhibition programme running temporary exhibitions across two galleries, offering the chance to see holdings not shown in our permanent galleries and museum displays. The current exhibitions draw attention to the incredible generosity of benefactors to the Collections, and seek to share these works with others.

Watercolours from the Eton College Collections, Verey Gallery, Eton College

24 November 2018 to 24 February 2019

john frederick lewis, the patio de los arrayanes, alhambra, 1832. pencil, watercolour and gouache.

John Frederick Lewis, The Patio de Los Arrayanes, Alhambra, 1832. Pencil, watercolour and gouache.

 

john ruskin, capri, 1841. pencil and wash.

John Ruskin, Capri, 1841. Pencil and wash.

 

joseph mallord william turner, chateau d'arques, near dieppe, c.1834. pencil and watercolour.

Joseph Mallord William Turner, Chateau d’Arques, near Dieppe, c.1834. Pencil and watercolour.

 

william daniell, eton from the river, 1827. pencil and watercolour.

William Daniell, Eton From the River, 1827. Pencil and watercolour.

 

The latest exhibition in the Verey Gallery is a display of some of the most significant 18th- and 19th-century watercolours from the Fine & Decorative Art collection. They represent many of the British artists of the golden age of watercolour painting, including Thomas Girtin, JMW Turner, John Ruskin and Paul Sandby.

This collection of more than 1,500 drawings and watercolours includes scenes of Windsor, Eton and their environs in addition to a considerable body of work depicting national and international subjects. Philippa Martin, Keeper of Fine and Decorative Art, has curated a display which highlights the quality, scope and beauty in the watercolour collection that has been acquired by the College by several generous donations. The collection has been used for teaching, research and various displays with the aim of opening up access.

This exhibition can be seen on Sunday afternoons, 2:30-5pm, entry is free. Alternatively, arrange a visit by appointment with collections@etoncollege.org.uk from Monday to Friday.

 

Treasures from the Nicholas Kessler Collection, Tower Gallery, Eton College Library

24 November 2018 to 29 March 2019

carl buddeus, volksgemälde und charakterköpfe des russischen volks. leipzig, johann friedrich gleditsch, 1820. depictions of russian peasants by an estonian artist.

Carl Buddeus, Volksgemälde und Charakterköpfe des Russischen Volks. Leipzig, Johann Friedrich Gleditsch, 1820. Depictions of Russian peasants by an Estonian artist.

 

henri gaudier-brzeska, two deer, c.1913. a study of two fallow deer, probably dating to a visit to arundel park in 1913.

Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Two deer, c.1913. A study of two fallow deer, probably dating to a visit to Arundel Park in 1913.

hergé, tintin au tibet. paris, casterman, 1960. split board mosaic binding commissioned by nicholas kessler from shepherds in 2012, with binder_s metal plate.

Hergé, Tintin au Tibet. Paris, Casterman, 1960. Split board mosaic binding commissioned by Nicholas Kessler from Shepherds in 2012, with binder’s metal plate.

 

joachim bouvet, l_estat present de la chine, en figures. paris, pierre giffart, 1697.

Joachim Bouvet, L’estat present de la Chine, en figures. Paris, Pierre Giffart, 1697.

 

thomas hardy, the trumpet-major. london, smith, elder, & co., 1880. first issue of the first edition.

Thomas Hardy, The Trumpet-Major. London, Smith, Elder, & Co., 1880. First issue of the first edition.

 

Curated by Michael Meredith and Dr Stephanie Coane, this exhibition commemorates one of College Library’s most significant 20th-century benefactors, Nicholas Kessler OE, who died earlier this year. During his life Kessler gave over 900 rare books to Eton, including important works on China, Russia and the novelist James Joyce; his gifts to Eton also include autograph manuscripts by Thomas Hardy and contemporary sculptures. Without his gifts our nineteenth century collection today would be very much the poorer.

Primarily a memorial to Nicholas Kessler, this exhibition also enables us to display some of the interesting books, manuscripts and photographs he gave us. In so doing, the extent and range of his gifts can be appreciated for the first time, as he wished to remain anonymous during his lifetime. This exhibition is open by appointment and we welcome you to book a visit: contact us at collections@etoncollege.org.uk or 01753 370590.

 

Vespucci’s Odyssey: humanism and exploration

The wanderings of Odysseus on his return from the Trojan Wars to Ithaca have served as an archetype for more than two millennia of narratives about travel in western culture. Traditionally ascribed to the blind poet Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey are the culmination of an oral tradition dating back to the Mycenaean age, handed down and developed for performance by nameless poets over five or more centuries before reaching their present form around 675-725 BCE. The poems were probably put into writing by the mid-6th century BCE, and the earliest surviving manuscripts are papyri from the 3rd century BCE, when Alexandrian scholars produced a relatively stable text which was copied by scribes and spread across the Hellenistic world. About 300 medieval Greek manuscripts of Homer survive from the 9th to 15th centuries, but in western Europe, Homer’s poems were transmitted through Latin abridgements until the revival of Greek learning in the Renaissance, when the influx of Byzantine refugees after the fall of Constantinople in 1453 brought scholars and the writings of Greek authors to the west.

A 15th-century manuscript of the Odyssey in College Library bears witness to this Greek diaspora. Given to Eton in 1954 by the book collector and Old Etonian John Hely-Hutchinson, it is in a binding typical of books from the library of San Marco in Florence, and the scribe has been identified as Joannes Skoutariotes of Thessaly, who was active from 1442 to 1494. Written on fine vellum, the manuscript is mostly undecorated apart from the small illuminated initials and the very fine border of white vines attributed to the miniaturist Filippo de Matteo Torelli, with putti and other creatures peeping out of the vines and vignettes showing scenes from the poem of Penelope weaving and Odysseus coming ashore. A charming feature of the border is the way it incorporates a marginal correction by the scribe, about two thirds of the way down the right-hand margin.

Homer's Odyssey, 15th century Italian manuscript (Eton MS 261)

Homer’s Odyssey, 15th century Italian manuscript (Eton MS 261)

An inscription on the final leaf of the manuscript, erased and barely legible, identifies the owner: ‘Liber Georgii Antonii Vespucci’ [the book of Giorgio Antonio Vespucci]. The youngest of three brothers of the Vespucci family of Florence, Giorgio Antonio Vespucci studied with the notary and humanist scholar Filippo de Ser Ugolino Pieruzzi, who inspired in him an interest in voyages, astronomy and discussions of the shape of the earth. He became a Dominican friar, scribe and teacher of classics in humanist circles, numbering among his friends the Neoplatonist philosopher and astrologer Marsilio Ficino and the Dominican preacher Girolamo Savonarola. In addition to copying books for the family library and for others, Giorgio Antonio Vespucci formed a notable collection of manuscript and printed books in Latin and Greek, estimated at between 150 and 200 volumes, and after his death the majority of these were bequeathed to the Dominican convent of San Marco.

As an educator, Vespucci taught young men from the best families in Florence and foreigners drawn to the city by the lure of humanism, including Greek and Byzantine exiles. Among those to whom he imparted his knowledge was his nephew Amerigo, who was intended for a commercial career which eventually led him to join between two and four voyages of exploration to the Americas in the service of Spain and Portugal around 1500. The exact number is disputed, as is Vespucci’s authorship of letters describing the voyages, which may be fabrications by others based in part on genuine letters. However, the publication and widespread circulation of the letters under a Latinised form of his name, Americus Vespucius, is thought to have inspired the cartographer Martin Waldeseemüller to coin the name ‘America’ in his 1507 world map, the Universalis Cosmographia, the first to show the Americas as a separate continent from Asia.

Domenico_ghirlandaio,_Cappella_vespucci

Domenico Ghirlandaio, ‘Madonna della Misericordia and Deposition’, fresco in the Vespucci Chapel, church of Ognissanti, Florence, 1473-1476. The twelve kneeling figures under the Virgin’s robe are members of the Vespucci family; however, scholars are not in agreement in the possible identifications of the individuals. Image from the Web Gallery of Art via WikiCommons

A composition book from Amerigo’s time at his uncle’s school survives in the Biblioteca Riccardiana in Florence. In it, he set down ideas and discussions on a variety of subjects and translated them into Latin. They travelled together to Rome, and Giorgio Antonio seems to have inspired his nephew with a love of travel and belief in its benefits. One passage reads: ‘Going back and forth to many distant lands, where by talking and trading one can learn many things, not a few merchants have become wise and learned … Moving about and making enquiries concerning the world, whose limits we have not yet completely ascertained, they can furnish valuable advice …’. It is tempting to believe that perhaps Amerigo Vespucci pored over his uncle’s manuscript of the Odyssey, or at least listened to tales from the poem.

By Stephie Coane, Deputy Curator of Modern Collections

Giorgio Antonio Vespucci’s copy of the Odyssey is on display in the current exhibition in College Library’s Tower Gallery, ‘VOYAGES: a journey in books’. The exhibition is open 24 November 2017 – 30 April 2018, Monday to Friday, 9.30-1 and 2-5 by appointment. To book, please contact us at collections@etoncollege.org.uk or 01753 370590.