May 29 2011: Paper Anatomical Model from Virtue’s Household Physician (1924)

On Saturday morning, with Robert Holcombe‘s constant need for materials of a certain vintage in mind, I was lucky enough to pick up a battered single volume from a larger set published in 1924 under the title Virtue’s Household Physician, and find in its pages one of those fascinating engraved paper fold-outs that progressively strips layers from the body, taking us from skin to skeleton in a series of ever-more beautiful and complex maps, where livers, kidneys, bladders and intestines take on the colours and forms of exotic fruit.

Something about these paper anatomical models has always drawn me, as far as I can tell, and I find that even now my writing naturally, almost unconsciously at times, finds much of its imagery in the body’s interior, which suggests these kinds of fold-out models and the images that surround them put down deep roots in my imagination a long time ago. I’m told that even as a very small child I’d pull the couple of hand-me-down volumes featuring male and female versions of the sequence shown here off their shelf and spend hours poring over them, learning the words for body parts.

With that kind of early attraction to what might be seen by many as somewhat gruesome images, the career options were probably – when I was six – either surgeon or serial killer. Luckily for both medicine and the general population, a successful attempt to teach my younger brother to say ‘penis’ and ‘vagina’ over our tea one afternoon, followed not long afterwards by a chance viewing of The Blob on TV, led to my being barred from any further access to medical books and obsessed instead with the idea of writing a sequel to the 1958 film, in which the frozen killer-jelly was, of course, rediscovered, thawed and sent on another rampage.

After that, it was far from inevitable that I’d end up writing, but probably more likely that I’d end up doing this than taking up either of the other options (I have a feeling that a certain Damien Hirst might have been rifling through and studying similar fold-outs in Leeds back in his own day, as well, but I suppose that’s hardly likely to be a revelation to anyone who’s taken even a passing glance at his artworks). Whatever the back-story, the point is that I still find these anatomical figures compelling, beautiful to look at and capable of inspiring new work, and finding another one yesterday merely confirmed that.

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