The Wellcome Library in London announced this week that they’re releasing more than 100,000 high-resolution images online for Creative Commons use. While their digital resource joins those of other high-profile institutions like the Getty, the Wellcome’s archive is especially exciting because it contains unique collections relating to both art and medicine.
Part of the Wellcome Collection, which is perhaps the most delightfully and smartly eclectic museum on Earth, the Wellcome Library houses objects and artworks that range across the spectrum of history, art, culture, and, above all, the curious. The thousands of images now online show manuscripts, etchings, paintings, photographs, advertisements, and artifacts. The earliest is a small scrap from what’s thought to be the oldest surviving herbal — a book on medicinal plants — on papyrus, from Ancient Egypt. There are also strange photographs of Salpêtrère Hospital’s hysteria and epilepsy patients, diagrams from Chinese traditional medicine, anatomical illustrations from all eras and all over the world, and even some small works by artists like van Gogh and Goya.
As Simon Chaplin, head of the Wellcome Library, stated:
Together the collection amounts to a dizzying visual record of centuries of human culture, and our attempts to understand our bodies, minds and health through art and observation. As a strong supporter of open access, we want to make sure these images can be used and enjoyed by anyone without restriction.
The most exciting part of scrolling through the seemingly endless images is finding the frequent fusions of art and medicine. From wax and ivory models that show early knowledge of anatomy, and an odd embrace of beauty in death, to surgeon Charles Bell’s visceral watercolors from the Waterloo battlefield, there’s an ongoing visual dialogue within the field of medicine. Below are a few highlights from this area of overlap in the collection, although you should flip through the images yourself, as this barely breaks the skin.
Essenhigh reveals a freedom that resonates with all manner of fusion: of figure and design, of abstraction and narrative, of sentiment and humor, and more generally, of ambitious painting with a readable narrative.