Under the Skin: illustrating the body

The “sublime but gruesome” art of medical illustration through the centuries is celebrated at a new Royal College of Physicians pop-up exhibition in London

Under the skin: illustrating the human body will run from February 1 until March 15 at the Royal College of Physicians’ museum in London. It promises to “examine the themes of illustrating, opening, mapping, knowing and treating the human body” using books, artworks and objects from the College’s library, archive and museum collection spanning the 15th to the 21st century.

Highlights will include a complete edition of Andreas Vesalius’ De humani corporis fabrica libri septem, published in Basel in 1543, which depicts the human body with a level of detail, accuracy and creative flair completely unknown before, and a Japanese manuscript from the 1820s delineates the internal organs alongside a representation of acupuncture points relating to key systems of the body.

Illustration of the internal organs and acupuncture points in Shishi bessho zui. Hozumi Koremasa, 1820s © RCP


From Atlas of head sections. Prepared by William MacEwen, drawings by Miss MacEachran, photogravure by Messrs Annan of Glasgow. Published Edinburgh, 1893 © RCP

Perhaps most startling is photographic image created in Scotland in 1893 which shows a horizontal cross-section of the human brain, presaging modern scanning technology.

“Human beings have always been, and continue to be, enthralled and in awe of what lies beneath our skin,” says Kristin Hussey, Senior Curator of the Royal College of Physicians Museum. “Artists and anatomists, surgeons, scientists and physicians, all have attempted to map and apprehend our complex bodies. Along the way they have innovated and created: developing new tools and techniques, grappling with how best to represent our manifestly three-dimensional forms in two-dimensional images. The fruits of this epic struggle – from woodcuts to ultrasounds, engravings to x-rays – are masterpieces of both art and science. Sublime, but also gruesome.”

Under the skin: illustrating the human body is at The Royal College of Physicians, 11 St Andrews Place, Regents Park, London, NW1, from February 1 until March 15. Admission is free. Details here

Two views of the anatomy of the head in Anatomie de la tete. Dissection by Pierre Train, drawing and engraving by Jacques Gautier d’Agoty, published Paris, 1748 . © RCP


Tabulae neurologicae Scarpa, 1794. Image: Mike Fear


Nevrologie Hirschfeld, 1866. Image: Mike Fear