Reframing disability: portraits from the Royal College of Physicians

Re-framing disability: portraits from the Royal College of Physicians 

14 February - 8 July 2011

This award winning exhibition explored a group of rare portraits from the 17th to the 19th centuries, held by the Royal College of Physicians. The portraits depict disabled men and women of all ages and walks of life, many of whom earned a living exhibiting themselves to the public. Some individuals, such as conjoined ‘Siamese’ twins Chang and Eng Bunker, are still famous today. Others, including professional artist Thomas Inglefield, born without legs or hands, are now forgotten.

The critically acclaimed exhibition uncovered the extraordinary hidden histories behind the portraits and looked at their impact through contemporary responses. The exhibit invited 27 disabled participants from across the UK to be interviewed and have their photographic portraits taken.

All of the prints in the display were from the RCP’s print collection, which mainly consists of portraits of medical professionals. In 2007, a volunteer documenting previously un-catalogued prints uncovered the small collection of prints ranging from the 17th–19th century depicting disabled men and women. The RCP instantly knew the importance of recognising who the people in these prints were and to tell their personal story through the exhibit. This is so the subjects could be viewed as individuals – parents, partners and professionals – and not solely defined by their disability. The RCP commissioned two medical historians to carry out this investigative research. 

The RCP recruited 287 disabled participants to take part in the project and it is their commentary and images that appeared throughout the exhibition. The project also aimed to create a legacy of contemporary positive portrayals of disabled people, taking images in which the participants had control. When creating the photographic portraits for the exhibit, the participants were invited to personalise their images with props and costumes. 

Re-framing disability: portraits from the Royal College of Physicians
Re-framing disability: portraits from the Royal College of Physicians (audio described)

A self-portrait of Matthew Buchinger from 1724 was within the hidden collection. Born in Anspach, Germany, in 1674, he was the youngest of nine children. In the caption of his portrait, Buchinger describes himself as a ‘wonderful little man of but 29 inches high, born without hands, feet or thighs’. Buchinger was a man of many talents. A proficient musician, he played the dulcimer (a type of stringed instrument) and was an extremely talented artist. Buchinger was married four times and had 11 children. 

Among the portraits in the collection, was that of Magdalene Rudolfs Thuinbuj. This was a special image as there were few portraits of disabled women within the collection. Born in Stockholm, Sweden around 1612, Magdalene was 39-years-old at the time of the portrait dated 1651. Like many individuals born without arms, she is shown performing tasks of varying complexity, with her feet. She is well-dressed in the Scandinavian Protestant style, with lace-edged garments, including a deep collar, cap and apron, which is decorative rather than functional. Smaller images around decorating the edge of this portrait show Magdalene stitching and darning, blowing her nose and breastfeeding a baby – though it is not known if this baby was hers. The central portrait shows Magdalene doing a much less feminine activity – firing a pistol.  

The Colloredo brothers
The Colloredo brothers, 1634
Magdalene Rudolfs Thuinbuj, 1651
Magdalene Rudolfs Thuinbuj, 1651
Chang and Eng, 1839
Chang and Eng, 1839

A portrait of the most famous conjoined twins, Chang and Eng was also present within the exhibition. The twins, born in Siam (Thailand) 1811, are the most popular conjoined twins in history, giving birth to the term ‘Siamese twins’. Joined at the chest by a four inch tube of flesh, Chang and Eng were able to walk side by side. They were discovered as children by a showman and travelled the world arriving in London by 1829, where they exhibited at the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly. 

When Chang and Eng first went to France, they were banned from exhibiting for fear of harming pregnant women who, it was supposed, might be shocked into giving birth to a similar disabled child. The idea, although largely discredited by the medical profession in the 19th century, still lingered in the public imagination. 

By 1839, Chang and Eng had fired their agent and were successfully managing their own careers. They went on to become US citizens, adopting the name ‘Bunker’ and purchased a farm in North Carolina. The twins married two sisters who did not get along, so they divided their time between two houses and fathered 22 children between them.

Viewing the portraits can be uncomfortable for contemporary viewers as our society no longer condones the exploitative exhibiting of unusual bodies for a paying public. Despite this, we have not lost our appetite for bodily difference, as recent television programmes with titles like Extraordinary People or Bodyshock show. Being stared at is a reality for many disabled people living today. The aim of the exhibition, in the words of one participant, was to ‘bring a humanistic view of disability to a wider audience’ and encourage ‘acceptance and celebration of difference’.

The exhibition catalogue can be purchased from the RCP shop