Object Lessons: The Visualisation of Nineteenth-Century Life Sciences

Two-faced kitten, taxidermy by GF Bushell (1880) (© Rosamond Purcell, all images courtesy Ridinghouse)

After 25 years of collecting contemporary art, George Loudon’s eye was caught by a display of 19th-century glass flowers at Harvard University. From those models by Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka, he delved into a whole forgotten field of Victorian science teaching specimens, where the natural world was recreated in papier-mâché, wax, plaster, and other materials so people could examine anatomy and biology up close.

Cover of ‘Object Lessons: The Visualisation of Nineteenth-Century Life Sciences’ (click to enlarge)

In Object Lessons: The Visualisation of Nineteenth-Century Life Sciences, out last month from Ridinghouse, the London-based collector told Lynne Cooke, senior curator of special projects in modern art at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC:

These glass models were really an eye-opener in terms of what this kind of material could mean. So then I started looking everywhere, and going to an endless number of museum storages because, of course, the institutions don’t show this material anymore. It’s all hidden away.

For example, the Blaschka glass flowers are proudly on view at Harvard, while their lesser-known glass creations like their slugs and marine invertebrates have mostly gathered dust. There is a recent revival in this period of scientific object creation; next year, the Corning Museum of Glass in Corning, New York, is holding a retrospective on the Blaschka marine models.

Object Lessons explores the around 200 objects in Loudon’s collection, photographed by Boston-based Rosamond Purcell in close detail with an objective eye, bringing viewers into the same perspective of 19th-century owners who touched and examined these pieces not as precious objects, but as learning tools.

Pages from ‘Object Lessons’ (photo of the book for Hyperallergic)

Medical heads by Casciani and Sons in ‘Object Lessons’ (photo of the book for Hyperallergic)

“The material I collect has lost its original purpose,” Loudon states in an introduction to the book. “It has disappeared from view in museums and universities and been consigned to storage. But by losing its original purpose it has become open to new meanings and especially new visual interpretations.”

Exploded skull (Europe, 1900) (© Rosamond Purcell, 2014) (click to enlarge)

Exploded skulls revealing each bone in dioramas, prints from plants, albums of insects mounted on decorative paper, samples of trees arranged like a book, and outdated theories like phrenology busts have lost their utility. Nevertheless, as artisan objects they are often extraordinary. An 1849 wooden box by Henry Blunt opens to reveal a miniature model of the moon’s surface, and papier-mâché models by Louis Thomas Jérôme Auzoux of human anatomy, mushrooms, and a grain of wheat capture vivid details of life in the simple material. At the time, cadavers were in short supply, and wax models were expensive, so these models had a very practical academic purpose.

However there are some outlying, very unpractical objects, such as a book of souls illustrated by someone who could supposedly see them, which Loudon found in a Los Angeles bookshop, and perhaps the most adorable two-faced kitten ever taxidermied positioned on a velvet cushion, whose creator, GF Bushell, proudly stuck his name in gold on the exterior of the glass dome. Many of the objects come from Europe, but they’re joined by pieces like fruit and vegetables carved from ivory in India. Whether stunning, articulated skeletons, or a simple turnip preserved in a jar, these obsolete objects sold for personal use at a time of scientific enthusiasm still have an enduring fascination.

Preserved Conjoined Piglets (European, 19th century), 30 cm high, 18 cm diameter (© Rosamond Purcell, 2014)

Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka, three glass models of slugs (Germany, mid-to late 19th century) (© Rosamond Purcell, 2014)

Model of the bones in the foot (Europe, late 19th century) (© Rosamond Purcell, 2014)

Alice Murray Dew-Smith, “Soul Shapes” (London, 1890), 4 hand-colored plates (© Rosamond Purcell, 2014)

Wax models of pomegranates by Francesco Garnier Valletti (Turin, 19th century)

Ivory Models of Fruit and Vegetables (India, 19th century), between 4 cm and 11 cm long (© Rosamond Purcell, 2014)

12 Phrenology Busts (France, 19th century), 8 x 4 x 5 cm each (© Rosamond Purcell, 2014)

Object Lessons: The Visualisation of Nineteenth-Century Life Sciences by George Loudon with photographs by Rosamond Purcell is out now from Ridinghouse.

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...