Michael Brown on the War Paintings of Charles Bell, Surgeon

Reposted from the Surgery & Emotion Blog

WARNING: CONTAINS GRAPHIC IMAGES OF WOUNDS AND INJURIES

Pity and Pride: Picturing the War Wounded in the Work of Charles Bell

November 2019

 

Dr Michael Brown of Roehampton University considers the emotional content of the famous war paintings of the surgeon Charles Bell.

I recently had an article accepted for publication by the Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies which explores the relationship of the Scottish surgical siblings John Bell (1763-1820) and Charles Bell (1774-1842) to war, especially their imaginative and professional investment in military surgery and their complex emotional reactions to the experience of treating the wounded. Drawing on Yuval Noah Harari’s argument that the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries saw war configured as an increasingly transcendent emotional event, it considers the difficulties of translating both professional identities and emotional experiences across a widening civil-military divide.[1]

In this regard, what is particularly interesting about both John and Charles Bell is that neither man was a military surgeon.  While Charles wrote in 1807 that ‘of all things I should like to be kept and sent to the armies as a surgeon’ and while John agitated for a role in the training of military surgeons, neither had served in the army or navy and neither had any direct experience of battle.[2]   And yet, in their work, both men imagined themselves as battlefield surgeons, harnessing the emotional and cultural capital of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars to shape their identities as surgeons.

While John Bell’s engagement with the war wounded is not especially well known outside of specialist circles, his younger brother’s experiences are far more widely discussed.  This derives, in part, from the emotionally expressive letters that he sent back to England from Brussels in the aftermath of Waterloo. Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) said that reading one of Charles’ letters to his brother George (1770-1843) ‘set me on fire’ and it served as inspiration both for his own trip to the Continent as well as his semi-fictional account of Waterloo, Paul’s Letters to his Kinsfolk (1816).[3] But even more than his letters, it is Charles’ paintings of the war wounded that have excited academic attention, and it is revealing that, outside of medical history, interest in Charles Bell has largely come from art historians such as Anthea Callan, Aris Sarafianos and, most notably of all, Philip Shaw.[4]

There is much more to be said about Charles’ experiences of the effects of war and how his emotional self-reflection fits within the wider affective cultures of what I call ‘Romantic surgery’.  This aspect, which is frequently overlooked by those who view him predominantly as an artist, rather than a surgeon, is what my article seeks to do.  But even in terms of his art, which has been subject to far greater critical scrutiny, there is still more to be said. In the main, scholars have been attracted to his images of the wounded of Waterloo and have emphasised his representation of pain and suffering, as well as his evocation of sublime pathos. By contrast, they have said rather less about his earlier paintings of the wounded from the Battle of Corunna (1809), men whom he encountered during his trip to Halsar Hospital in Gosport and, later, at York Hospital in Chelsea.

These paintings exhibit certain similarities to his later sketches from Brussels, particularly in their visceral quality.  This is certainly true of his images of gunshot wounds to the skull, thigh and testicles (Figs 1, 2 and 3).

Fig. 1 – Charles Bell, ‘Musket Ball Wound of Skull’ (1809). Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh.
Fig. 1 – Charles Bell, ‘Musket Ball Wound of Skull’ (1809). Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh.
Fig. 2 – Charles Bell, ‘Gunshot Wound of Thigh’ (1809). Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh.
Fig. 2 – Charles Bell, ‘Gunshot Wound of Thigh’ (1809). Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh.
Fig. 3 - Charles Bell, ‘Gunshot wound of testes’ (1809). Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh.
Fig. 3 – Charles Bell, ‘Gunshot wound of testes’ (1809). Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh.

But, in other respects, they differ. For one thing, they are more obviously painterly, since they are finished in oils. For another, they are just as enamoured of male beauty as they are concerned with bodily disfigurement. Take, for example, his three images of chest and abdominal wounds (Figs 4, 5 and 6).

Fig. 4 – Charles Bell, ‘Gunshot Wound of the Chest’ (1809). Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh.
Fig. 4 – Charles Bell, ‘Gunshot Wound of the Chest’ (1809). Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh.
Fig. 5 – Charles Bell, ‘Gunshot Wound of Abdomen’ (1809). Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh.
Fig. 5 – Charles Bell, ‘Gunshot Wound of Abdomen’ (1809). Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh.
Fig. 6 – Charles Bell, ‘Gunshot Wound of Chest’ (1809). Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh.
Fig. 6 – Charles Bell, ‘Gunshot Wound of Chest’ (1809). Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh.

In Fig. 4, in particular, the pose, though no doubt calculated to display the wound, resonates with the poses of other male models, especially boxers, who were regular subjects of the anatomical and artistic gaze.   Meanwhile, in other instances, the men’s display of their wounds evokes the traditions of Christian iconography, notably the stigmata (Fig. 7) and religious ecstasy (Fig. 8), as well as contemporary neoclassical subjects such as Jacques Louis David’s Death of Marat (1793) (Fig. 9).

Fig. 7 – Giacomo Galli, Christ Displaying his Wounds (c.1630). Perth and Kinross Council.
Fig. 7 – Giacomo Galli, Christ Displaying his Wounds (c.1630). Perth and Kinross Council.
Fig. 8 – Michelangelo Merisi de Caravaggio, Mary Magdalen in Ecstasy (1606). Wikimedia Commons.
Fig. 8 – Michelangelo Merisi de Caravaggio, Mary Magdalen in Ecstasy (1606). Wikimedia Commons.
Fig. 9 – Jacques-Louis David, The Death of Marat (1793). Wikimedia Commons.
Fig. 9 – Jacques-Louis David, The Death of Marat (1793). Wikimedia Commons.

That Charles should have conceived of his sitters in this way is hardly surprising. He was well schooled in art theory, having published a book on the expression of emotion in painting (1806) and competed (unsuccessfully) for the chair of Anatomy at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1807. Moreover, his interest in the male form and its representation is well documented in his letters. In 1808, for example, he wrote to George that he ‘had been grumbling for some days that comparisons of the modern athletes and the antique had been making, and exhibitions of Jackson, the boxer, etc. without my presence [sic]’.  However, ‘On Saturday when I came home I found that Lord Elgin had called, and written a note requesting me to come and see an exhibition of the principal sparrers naked in his museum. I went, and was much pleased’.[5] Furthermore, when writing to his bother about the ‘his gun-shot men’, he told him how he sought to learn from the ‘best old masters’ how to convey a ‘faithful’ representation that is ‘full of character’, as opposed to the ‘modern’ style in which the individual was ‘shaded off and indistinct’.[6]

At the same time, the ambivalence of Charles’ Corunna paintings, torn as they are between beauty and horror, pride and pity, can be ascribed to Charles’s complex affective response to Haslar. As he wrote to George, concerning his experiences with the wounded, ‘I have muttered bitter curses and lamentations, have been delighted with the heroism and prowess of my countrymen, and shed tears of pity in the course of a few minutes’.[7] In this way, Charles’ paintings can be seen to exemplify a range of emotional responses that were utterly in keeping with contemporary cultural norms, namely the religious (‘bitter curses and lamentations’), the patriotic (‘heroism and prowess of my countrymen’) and the sentimental (‘tears of pity’).

Charles’ images of the Waterloo wounded share certain qualities with his earlier paintings. The faces of the men, in particular, speak to his interest in the representation of intense emotion, approaching on occasion to what Sarafianos and Shaw have identified as sublime pain.  But, in other respects, they are more ragged, less obviously aestheticized and perhaps more shocking.  No doubt, this owes something to the medium: watercolours after pencil sketches done at the bedside.  It also owes something to the severity of the wounds themselves, which in a number of cases are particularly extreme (Figs 10 and 11). But, as with his Corunna images, they also reflect Charles’ emotional experiences in Brussels.

Fig. 10 – Charles Bell, ‘(Upper extremity) Anonymous soldier’ (c.1815). Wikimedia Commons.
Fig. 10 – Charles Bell, ‘(Upper extremity) Anonymous soldier’ (c.1815). Wikimedia Commons.
Fig. 11 – Charles Bell, ‘(Upper extremity), Voultz, King’s German Legion’ (c.1815). Wikimedia Commons.
Fig. 11 – Charles Bell, ‘(Upper extremity), Voultz, King’s German Legion’ (c.1815). Wikimedia Commons.

Much of Charles’s surgical work was with the French wounded, who had been ‘brought from the field after lying many days in the ground, many dying, many in the agony, many miserably racked with pain and spasms’.[8] While at Haslar his emotional equipoise had been tested, but in Brussels it was almost overwhelmed, as he was confronted by the ‘most shocking sights of woe’.[9] In this regard it is interesting that, where one might expect his French patients, or even those members of the King’s German Legion whom he treated, to be ‘othered’, his sketches largely preserve the names of his Waterloo subjects, whereas those of his British subjects from Corunna remain anonymous. Despite referring to the French troops as a fierce, cruel and bloodthirsty ‘race of banditti’, he was deeply moved by their ‘plaintive cries and declarations of suffering’.[10]  It is almost as if he wished to preserve, in their names, a testament to the humanity of those whose suffering he witnessed and sought to relieve (Fig. 12).

Fig. 12 – Charles Bell, ‘(Abdomen) Peltier, 3rd French Lancers’ (c.1815). Wikimedia Commons.
Fig. 12 – Charles Bell, ‘(Abdomen) Peltier, 3rd French Lancers’ (c.1815). Wikimedia Commons.

Indeed, Charles’ graphic images from Waterloo might even be regarded as a kind of emotional catharsis, an expression of sensations that were so intense as to defy language. After his return to London he wrote a letter to his friend, the Whig MP Francis Horner (1778-1817); following a lengthy description of his experiences, he apologised for ‘falling into the mistake of attempting to convey to you the feelings which took possession of me, amidst the miseries of Brussels’. Acknowledging the ineffability of what he had seen, he concluded by suggesting that ‘I must show you my notebooks, for as I took my notes of cases generally by sketching the object our remarks, it may convey an excuse for the excess of sentiment’.[11]

 

[1] Yuval Noah Harari, The Ultimate Experience: Battlefield Revelations and the Making of Modern War Culture, 1450-2000 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).

[2] Letters of Charles Bell (London: 1870)  Charles to George Bell, 21st May 1807, p. 96.

[3] John Gibson Lockhart, Memoirs of the Life of Sir Walter Scott, Bart, vol. 3 (Edinburgh: 1837), p. 347-50. See

[4] Anthea Callen, Looking at Men: Art, Anatomy and the Modern Male Body (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018); Aris Sarafianos, ‘Wounding realities and “painful excitements”: real sympathy, the imitation of suffering and the visual arts after Burke’s sublime’, in Thomas Macsotay, Corneils van der Haven and Karel Vanhaesebrouck (eds), The Hurt(ful) Body: Performing and Beholding Pain, 1600-1800 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2017), 170-201; Philip Shaw, Suffering and Sentiment in Romantic Military Art (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2013). Shaw is not an art historian in the conventional sense, but his book is largely concerned with visual representation.

[5] Letters, Charles to George Bell, 26th July 1808, pp. 125-6.

[6] Ibid., Charles to George Bell, 23rd May 1809, pp. 147-8.

[7] Ibid., Charles to George Bell, 3rd February 1809, p. 139.

[8] Ibid., Charles to George Bell, 1st July 1815, p. 241.

[9] Ibid., Charles to Francis Horner, July 1815, p. 248.

[10] Ibid., Charles to George Bell, 1st July 1815, pp. 242-3.

[11] Ibid., Charles to Francis Horner, July 1815, p. 248.

CFP: ‘Poetry & Painting: Conversations’ – An Interdisciplinary Conference; University of Oxford, 23 March 2020

CFP: ‘Poetry & Painting: Conversations’ – An Interdisciplinary Conference;

Faculty of English, University of Oxford, 23 March 2020.

You know how

I feel about painters. I sometimes think poetry

only describes.

Frank O’Hara, ‘John Button Birthday’ (1957)

The supposed similarity between poetry and painting was famously characterized in Horace’s ‘Ars Poetica’ by the dictum ‘ut pictura poesis’ (‘as is painting, so is poetry’). Yet in 1766, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing influentially argued for the limits that condition these different art forms — how could a visual scream ever be rendered linguistically?

The intense and ambivalent relationship between the so-called “sister arts” of poetry and painting has long been a subject of critical enquiry. The multiple tensions and affinities shared by these expressive forms are fruitful topics of a discussion that is currently enjoying a revival both within and beyond academia.

Co-organisers Drs Jasmine Jagger and Jack Parlett invite you to share your thoughts on this relationship for a one-day conference in Oxford. This symposium seeks to ignite and develop critical and trans-historical conversations about the interplay between the sister arts. Contributors may consider, but need not be limited to:

  • Ekphrasis and ekphrastic writing
  • Illustration and other “composite” modes
  • Co- and inter-disciplinarity
  • Gender politics
  • Narrative, time and temporality
  • Tone, texture, and style
  • Questions of form
  • Issues of historicity
  • Interrelations between poetry, painting and other forms (e.g. photography and film)
  • Theories of the visual and the gaze
  • Interpretation and revisionism
  • Colour, mood, affect, and play

 

Proposals are invited for twenty-minute papers, to be delivered as part of panels of three. Individual proposals (of 250 words), and panel proposals (of up to 700 words), for three papers that interact under a common theme, are warmly accepted. Creative responses are also welcome.

The conference’s plenary speakers have been confirmed as Professor T. J. Clark and Dr Kathryn Murphy. Please send proposals to jack.parlett@univ.ox.ac.uk and jasmine.jagger@ell.ox.ac.uk. The deadline for submissions is 30 November 2019. The one-day conference will take place on 23 March 2020 at the Faculty of English, Oxford. For more information, please visit www.poetryandpainting.co.uk. We welcome you to disseminate this CFP widely. This conference is organised in association with the Faculty of English, Oxford.

CfP: Association of Art Historians 2017

AAH2017 

43rd Annual Conference and Art Book Fair

Loughborough University

6 – 8 April 2017

Deadline for Proposals: 7 November 2016

 

AAH2017’s Call for Papers includes two sessions of interest to RIN’s members, readers and followers:

 

Prints in Books: the materiality, art history and collection of illustrations

Convenor: Elizabeth Savage, Cambridge University, leu21@cam.ac.uk

 

Speculative Libraries

Convenor: Nick Thurston, University of Leeds, n.thurston@leeds.ac.uk

 

Please email your paper proposals straight  to the session convenor(s). Provide a title and abstract for a 25 minute paper (max 250 words). Include your name, affiliation and email. Your paper title should be concise and accurately reflect what the paper is about (it should ‘say what it does on the tin’) because the title is what appears most first and foremost online, in social media and in the printed programme.

You should receive an acknowledgement of receipt of your submission within two weeks.

 

Reminder: RIN’s summer event, ‘Staging Shakespeare’, London July 19th

‘Staging Shakespeare: picturing Shakespeare’s plays in the 18th and 21st centuries’.
Professor Fred Burwick, University of California Los Angeles

Tuesday 19th July 2016
6.30pm – 8pm
City of Westminster Archives Centre, 10 St Ann’s St, London, SW1P 2DE

Join us for an event to celebrate Shakespeare’s 400th Anniversary, with a free public lecture followed by a wine reception (sponsored by the British Association for Romantic Studies).

Download the poster at https://romanticillustrationnetwork.wordpress.com/2016/05/03/rin-event-fred-burwick-staging-shakespeare-public-lecture-at-westminster-archives-july-19th-2016/.

 

RIN member Fred Burwick will share his expert knowledge of the Boydell Shakespeare Gallery, opened in Pall Mall in 1789. The talk will examine the extent to which any of the scenes in the Boydell Gallery might be presumed to represent how Shakespeare was actually performed during the period, and also consider present-day models of representation.

Prints from the Gallery will be on view, as well as a display about Shakespeare.

To book, contact: City of Westminster Archives Centre, 10 St Ann’s St,London, SW1P 2DE
Tel: 020 7641 5180
Email: archives@westminster.gov.uk

 

AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Partnership: Fully-funded PhD studentship

AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Partnership: Fully-funded PhD studentship

Modern Mistresses on the Old Masters: nineteenth-century women writers on western European art – their networks and influence

Birkbeck, University of London (School of Arts)

The National Gallery, London

Application Deadline: 12 noon, 22nd April 2016.

Applications are invited for an AHRC-funded PhD studentship on the role of women as disseminators of knowledge about the Old Masters, focusing especially on those who induced a greater interest in the collection at Trafalgar Square. It explores the social and cultural history of the Gallery’s present-day efforts to democratize access to its collections and reach new audiences by examining the understudied critical and art-historical writings of nineteenth-century women, which typically had a more popular reach than that of their male counterparts while also speaking to specialists, then and now.

This studentship is one of a number awarded to the National Gallery, as part of the AHRC’s new Collaborative Doctoral Partnership Scheme.

The supervisors of the project have identified the following issues for research, although the student has the scope to develop both the topic and approach, in conjunction with the supervisors.

What contribution did Victorian women writers make to scholarship on the Old Masters in the National Gallery’s collection? Did women tend to write about particular artists and periods, and if so why? Did their work affect the canon? How was their work received, and what was its reputation? What has been the subsequent fortuna critica? How might it speak to modern audiences?

Through what networks were these women connected with the National Gallery? How important to their success were such networks and relationships? To what extent did these women’s writings affect acquisition and collecting behaviours at the National Gallery and in the private sphere? Were their opinions taken seriously by the institutional art world? What forms did the work of women writers take, and to what audiences was it was addressed? What was the effect of their cross over between different genres and media? What was the role of the penny press in widening access to the Old Masters in the mid nineteenth century? Were women writers interested in the role of the National Gallery and other art institutions as places of advocacy for mass education?

This project will be supervised by Professor Hilary Fraser, Geoffrey Tillotson Chair in Nineteenth-Century Studies and Dean of Arts at Birkbeck, University of London, whose recent work focuses on women writers and the emergence of art history in the nineteenth century, and Dr Susanna Avery-Quash, Senior Research Curator in the History of Collecting at the National Gallery, whose research interests encompass the history of important private and public art collections.

This studentship will provide the student with invaluable academic skills and experience of working in a major national art museum, as well as deep understanding of women and nineteenth-century approaches to the Old Masters. It will involve the student in a range of interdisciplinary research activities, drawing on archival and primary textual material, various types of art collections and the resources of the National Gallery and Birkbeck.

In addition to working directly on the PhD thesis, it is envisaged that the student will also be engaged in a range of related activities, such as the delivery of research papers, assisting with conference organization, and contributing to a Room 1/Sunley Room exhibition at the National Gallery. She or he will also be expected to play a full role in the research cultures of both institutions.

For application details, please visit:
http://www.bbk.ac.uk/arts/research/research-bursaries-studentships-funding/ahrc-collaborative-doctoral-award-fully-funded-phd-studentship

CFP. Abusing Power: The Visual Politics of Satire

AbusingPowerAbusing Power: The Visual Politics of Satire
23rd Sep 2016 9:00am – 24th Sep 2016 6:00pm
Brighton Museum and Pavilion

A conference organised by the University of Brighton in association with the Royal Pavilion and Brighton Museum. Abstracts due: 9th May 2016 

 

http://arts.brighton.ac.uk/research/c21/events/events-calendar2/abusing-power-the-visual-politics-of-satire

Speakers include:

Steve Bell, political cartoonist
Martin Rowson, political cartoonist
Professor Ian Haywood, University of Roehampton
The Curator of the Cartoon Museum, London
The Curator of Fine Art at the Royal Pavilion Museums

In January 2015, 12 of France’s most familiar cartoonists were shot dead in Paris. The aftermath of the attack on Charlie Hebdo raises significant questions about the status and the potential impact of an image and gives this conference a political urgency. The events in Paris underline both the power of the political cartoonist and the dangers of causing offence to political and religious sensibilities.

In 1820, George Cruikshank and his brother Robert were summoned to Brighton Pavilion by George IV, in an attempt to buy them off from reproducing their salacious satirical cartoons. They were paid off, but continued to produce scurrilous images of the royal family and political figures. The Royal Pavilion now houses one of the best collections of Cruikshank, Hogarth and Gillray in the world, three of the most eminent caricaturists in visual history.

The city of Brighton and the University have a long history of association with cartoon and caricature. This conference offers the opportunity to celebrate the rich history of caricature and cartoons associated with Brighton and to address the important ethical questions that now confront the contemporary cartoonist. It celebrates the rich collections of Cruikshank, Gillray and Hogarth at the Brighton Pavilion and brings together the expertise of practitioners, curators, academic historians and cultural analysts. The conference draws upon the research expertise of the University, on the curatorial experience of museum staff and on cartoonists who currently practice.

This conference is organised by three research groupings from the College of Arts and Humanities at the University of Brighton, the Centre for Applied Philosophy Politics and Ethics, the Centre for Research in Memory, Narrative and Histories and C21: Research in Twenty-First Century Writings, which allows for the interdisciplinary focus that the subject merits.

We invite proposals (c300 words) for both papers and panels on topics which may include, but are not limited to:

Comedy and ethics – what are the responsibilities of a cartoonist? || The curation of cartoons – what should be kept? || How far can you go? Are there limits to what a cartoonist can lampoon? || The legacies of Cruikshank, Gillray and Hogarth || Religion and caricature || Representations of history through cartoon || The impact of caricature on popular ideas of politics || Celebrity and caricature || In what contexts does satire flourish and why? || Is satire necessary?

DEADLINE: Email your proposal and short bio to C21Writings@brighton.ac.uk by 9th May 2016 

Keeping Sketchbooks: Talk and Book Launch, The House of Illustration, King’s Cross, London

Keeping Sketchbooks

14 Apr 2016, 7:00pm

2 Granary Square, King’s Cross London, N1C 4BH

Celebrate the importance of the sketchbook in this evening of illustrated talks as The House of Illustration launch Martin Ursell’s ‘Keeping Sketchbooks’

Sketchbooks are vital to the work of illustrators, artists, designers and even medical professionals. Come along for an evening of talks to celebrate the publication of Martin Ursell’s new book Keeping Sketchbooks.

Hear from three of the book’s nineteen contributors. John Vernon Lord will share his spectacularly detailed and brilliant sketchbooks of doodles and jottings complied over fifty years. Phil Carter of Carter Wong studio gives us a rare opportunity to view his stunning reportage sketchbooks. And hand surgeon Donald Summat provides insight into his immaculate working sketchbooks complied during operations and consultations.

The book will be available in the shop for signing, and Martin Ursell is offering a free copy of his limited edition Zootime, featuring a selection from thirty years of zoo drawings to anyone buying the book.

To book tickets, go to the House of Illustration’s website: http://www.houseofillustration.org.uk/whats-on/current-future-events/keeping-sketchbooks