Polychrome écorché figure, plaster cast, probably 1771.
© Royal Academy of Arts, London.

Object of the Month - July 2007


Polychrome écorché figure, plaster cast, probably 1771

This striking but gruesome figure was probably cast from the flayed corpse of an executed criminal, under the direction of William Hunter (1718-1783). A pioneering surgeon, obstetrician and art collector, Hunter was the first Professor of Anatomy at the Royal Academy Schools from 1768 and used flayed, or écorché, figures like this one as teaching aids.

At this time, the only bodies officially available to anatomists were those of criminals whose death sentence specified that their corpses be dissected. This figure is thought to be the one made for Hunter in 1771 from the body of a thief hanged for taking part in a violent burglary. The painter James Northcote, then a student at the Royal Academy Schools, recalled that the Professor gave only two lectures over the macabre specimen, ensuring that the body was still sufficiently 'fresh' to cast.

Ecorchés were produced for the use of both artists and medical students. They were often set in classical poses, like this example with one arm raised and the legs in contrapposto. However, the areas of deep dissection and the powerful, naturalistic paintwork on this figure are unusual features. Recent conservation of the cast also found a removable section in the abdomen to reveal the internal organs. This level of detail strongly suggests the involvement of a dedicated teacher like Hunter. He complained of seeing art students draw an arm with 'the particular action...so little defined that you cannot tell whether it is pulling...or pushing, raising something, or putting it down: you shall see a hand laid round a spear, sword or dagger, but seldom grasping it'. Using anatomical figures like this one to illustrate his popular lectures, Hunter sought to instil in his students a thorough understanding of the human body.

The écorché can be seen as part of the display The Body Politic: Anatomical Drawings by Benjamin Robert Haydon, until 21 October 2007 in theJohn Madejski Fine Rooms, Royal Academy of Arts.