Under the skin: inhabiting the body

Under the skin: inhabiting the body

Anatomical illustrations normally show us young, healthy male bodies. They deliberately ignore the realities of living in a physical body, leaving out the blemishes and scars of everyday life, and the marks, swellings and lesions caused by disease.

By contrast, pathological illustrations highlight these anomalies. They catalogue and depict the signs, colours and textures of illness on the skin, tissue and organs. These images of living people’s imperfect and damaged bodies evoke the sometimes painful and distressing realities of inhabiting a human body.

Medical heirlooms

In her series ‘Medical heirlooms’ (above), Tamsin van Essen manipulates the surfaces of ceramic jars to recreate the visible faults and blemishes caused by inherited diseases. The surfaces of the jars seem to swell, peel and flake from the effects of acne, psoriasis and osteoporosis. One jar remains unblemished on the outside, but swollen red scar tissue is visible inside.

Disrupting the usually solid and smooth surface of ceramic objects invites us to consider the marks on our bodies as indicators of what is happening beneath our own skin. It reflects that sometimes the reality of inhabiting our bodies is not visible on the surface.

Psoriasis and acne

LEFT: Psoriasis inveterata. Watercolour drawing by unknown artist, commissioned by Thomas Bateman, c.1817.

The first major work attempting to categorise skin diseases by their appearance was Robert Willan’s On cutaneous diseases (1808). After Willan’s death in 1812, his unfinished work was completed by physician Thomas Bateman. This is one of the original drawings for Bateman’s book.

View the catalogue record for the drawing of psoriasis

RIGHT: Acne indurata. Watercolour drawing by unknown artist, text by Thomas Bateman, c.1817.

Illustrations of skin diseases depict painful and sometimes extreme symptoms on the bodies of living people. They can be uncomfortable and upsetting to look at, especially when personal and identifiable features such as face, hands, hairstyle or clothing are included.

View catalogue record for the drawing of acne or Explore Bateman’s original manuscript online

Colour illustration of acne on a woman's face and text description of condition.

Delineations of cutaneous diseases

Acne indurata, in Delineations of cutaneous diseases. Drawing by Sydenham Edwards, colour stipple engraving by Perry, text by Thomas Bateman, published London, 1817.

Colour and texture are very important in categorising and diagnosing skin diseases. In the 19th century, dermatology books were at the forefront of the development of colour printing techniques.

These illustrations were printed using the ‘à la poupée’ method. Before printing each page, wads of cloth were used to dab coloured inks on to the required areas of the engraved plate. This technique produced highly detailed results, but was extremely time consuming and therefore very expensive. These books sold for 12 pounds 12 shillings each, well above the cost of most medical books at the time.

Explore the book online:

Image from the University of Leeds Library and made available under the Creative Commons, Public Domain Mark.

View the RCP catalogue record for Delineations of cutaneous diseases

Part of the exhibition 'Under the skin: anatomy, art and identity'. Explore further: