Sophie Campbell



Body of medicine: RCP does anatomy

March 1, 2019

You could so easily miss it. The Royal College of Physicians’ building is set back from the stucco terraces around the Regent’s Park, an elegant assemblage of concrete slabs, glass and chocolate brick. It’s their fifth building since 1518, designed in the early 1960s by the modernist architect Sir Denys Lasdun on a bomb site – this was allegedly a turning point for the Luftwaffe, dumping bombs as they went home.

The startling mix of tradition and modernism is Grade-I listed and its horizontal axes converge on the important Censors Room, used for viva voce examinations over the centuries and clad with seventeenth-century panelling that itself has survived three of the college’s moves.

Keiskamma Trust Tapestry of the RCJ building

It’s also one of the busiest buildings in London, with a constant round of symposia and conferences, and it stages regular exhibitions and events using material from its wonderful collections. Currently a pop-up show called Under the skin: Illustrating the human body runs for six weeks as part of a wider, year-long Thinking 3D festival, celebrating the 500th anniversary of the polymath artist Leonardo da Vinci.

The idea is to focus not on the medical content of the works, but on the methods used by the artists who made them, and how those change with the technology and mores of the time. It starts with a mediaeval anatomy book, hand-drawn and lettered, meticulous instructions inked around a human body, which says, the curator explains, that an underarm incision can make someone die of laughter.

In the same cabinet are three works showing the stages of making a medical print: first a fine watercolour of a diseased skull, then its copper plate twin, meticulously engraved in reverse with consummate skill – and, finally, the black and white print.

Tabulae neurologicae. Antonio Scarpa, published Pavia, 1794 @ Royal College of Physicians

Images range from the clinical – monochrome, precise, inhuman – to the terrifying – particularly an early four-colour print of two heads, one with its brain sectioned like a grapefruit, another with a diseased face, in an almost erotic embrace.

A bizarre diagram of the alimentary tract, from mouth to anus, alone on the page, has the some of the horror of a Francis Bacon painting, while a 1948 ‘Bioscope’, made in America, shows a male and female body – each topped by a perfect blonde head – with revolving card wheels behind showing the different organs and systems. The captions metaphorically pat the woman on the head. On the other hand, the man is not allowed to have either genitals or any mention of his reproductive system.

1948 American 'Bioscope' - Male
1948 American 'Bioscope' - Female

Even after the exhibition, there is much to see in this building. The charming model of Robert Hooke’s ‘Cutlerian Anatomy Theatre’, for instance, that once stood on Warwick Street near St Paul’s, an early home to the college and still the location of the Worshipful Company of Cutlers who made the surgical instruments. There’s a priceless collection of six seventeenth-century Italian anatomy tables, nervous and venal systems laid out like winter trees on varnished timber panels, the delightful Victor Hoffbrand collection of English apothecary jars in blue-and-white delft with Latin labels forming part of the design, and the  Keiskamma Trust Tapestry, made in South Africa to celebrate the RCP’s 500th anniversary in 2017.

Look out for events, talks and tours and architectural tours of the building every year during Open House London, this year running from September 21-29.

Tapestry version of a mediaeval anatomy book

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Sophie Campbell

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