These two pen and ink studies were made by George Romney on pages of a sketchbook he was using in the 1770s. The sheets show two views of an écorché model, almost certainly a bronze cast of the écorché made from a wax model commissioned by William Hunter from the Anglo-Danish sculptor Michael Henry Spang which he exhibited at the Society of Arts in 1761 and was cast by the gem engraver, Edward Burch. Casts of this statuette became the essential apparatus for artists from the mid-eighteenth century and as Joseph Nollekens noted it was: ‘so well known to every draughtsman who assiduously studies his art.’
William Hunter was the most significant anatomist in eighteenth-century London. From the 1750s Hunter was associated with the teaching of anatomy to artists and became the Royal Academy’s first professor of anatomy in 1768. Hunter’s first documented écorché was made for the Society of Arts.
William Hunter’s brother, John, recalled the circumstances of its production:
‘About this time he read lectures on Anatomy to the Incorporated Society of Painters at their rooms in St Martin’s Lane, upon a subject executed at Tyburn. His brother who had the management of the dissections had eight men at once from Tyburn in the month of April. The Society was acquainted with it and they desired to come and chuse the best subject for such a purpose. When they had fix’d upon one, he was immediately sent to their apartments. As all this was done in a few hours after death, and as they had not become stif, Dr Hunter conceived he might first be put into an attitude and allowed to stiffen it, which was done, and when he became stif we all set to work by the next morning we had the external muscles all well exposed ready for making a mold from him, the cast of which is now in the Royal Academy.’
The plaster cast remained at the Royal Academy for most of the eighteenth century and appears in Zoffany's two paintings of the Academy. Hunter appreciated the importance of producing a reduced replica of the écorché figure for easier use by artists. He commissioned the Danish sculptor Michael Henry Spang to make a reduced wax model which was exhibited at the Society of Arts in 1761. The wax model survives in Hunter’s collection at Glasgow University. Spang died in 1767 and Hunter turned to other sculptors to cast bronzes from his model. Albert Pars was awarded a premium for a 'Cast of an Anatomy figure, after Spang' in 1767 by the Society of Artists.
The finished models were hugely popular. Hunter was immensely proud of the sculpture and is shown holding a version in his portrait by Mason Chamberlin in the Royal Academy. Thomas Paine the younger recorded that he carried with him on his journey to Italy in 1768: 'a little Anatomycal figure in bronze, by Spang, from a model he made in wax…', and he reported that it was: 'much admired at Paris, Rome etc. for its excellence, and portability.’ Romney almost certainly owned one of the casts as he made a number of studies from one and included it in a remarkable double-portrait at McMaster Museum of Art entitled: The Anatomy Lesson. These two pages from a sketchbook show the value of these small models and offer fascinating evidence for the continued role that anatomical study played in the career of a British artist in the eighteenth century.
- J. T. Smith, Nollekens and His Times, London, 1828, p.273.
- Eds. E. Geoffrey Hancock, Nick Pearce and Mungo Campbell, William Hunter’s World: The Art and Science of Eighteenth-Century Collecting, Ashgate, 2015.
- Quoted in Martin Postle, ‘Flayed for art: écorché figure in the English art academy’, The British Art Journal, 5, no.1, 2004, p.57.
- See Ed. Martin Postle, Johan Zoffany RA: Society Observed, New Haven and London, 2011, pp.222-223.
- The painting had traditionally been called Robert, 9th Baron Petre and his son, but Alex Kidson has argued that it is possibly an idealised self-portrait with his younger brother Peter. Alex Kidson, George Romney: A Complete Catalogue of his Paintings, New Haven and London, 2015, III, pp.809-9.