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From Hogarth to Rowlandson: Medicine in Art in Eighteenth Century Britain, Fiona Haslam, (Liverpool University Press, 1996)

I’m often asked about how I go about doing the research for my historical novels. One of the sources I usually mention is visual art. I’ve always found that looking at contemporary paintings, prints, sketches, sculpture and so on reveals a wealth of information about how people of the past lived – what they wore, what sort of houses they lived in, how they spent their time, the towns and villages they inhabited. Going to an art gallery is one of my favourite research trips – especially if there’s a decent café with tea and cake at the end of an afternoon’s study!

Of course, you don’t always have to take artistic representations literally. It’s obvious that whatever you’re looking at is an interpretation of the reality: it’s how the artist saw it. In fact, this subjectivity can be a real advantage if you’re looking for ideas about how people lived and thought. Often the most exaggerated representations, such as satirical prints or caricature, are the most revealing, telling us things that a more serious (or good natured?) work may not. Many of Rowlandson’s prints depict activities that more reputable artists avoided – I don’t mean just his pornographic works, though there are plenty of these and very unpleasant some of them are – but people at their sports, drinking, flirting… 



So I was intrigued when I came across Fiona Haslam’s From Hogarth to Rowlandson: Medicine in Art in Eighteenth Century Britain. Medicine is something we all of us come into contact with at various points in our lives, and it’s a place where our experiences and those of our ancestors can meet. Luckily for us, though, not too closely. While the experiences of pain, illness, fear, and anxiety in the face of mortality are shared, our medical systems are vastly different.

That’s one reason I’ve never understood anyone who says they would like to have lived in the eighteenth century. I imagine they’re picturing some Jane Austenish world of frocks, drawing rooms, tea in china cups, and elegant dances at assembly rooms. Even if this were to be my lot as an eighteenth woman (though it very likely wouldn’t be – it wasn’t for the majority of women), the idea of submitting to medical care based on shaky ground such as the theory of the four humours; of facing operations and other procedures without anaesthetic or effective pain killers; or of relying on home remedies based on ingredients like baked earthworms (jaundice) or hog dung (nose bleeds) does not appeal. Add to that professional medical regimes heavily dependent on blood letting, clysters, and purgatives, and I can safely say that no, I would not have liked to live in the eighteenth century!

Many professional medical practices are described in From Hogarth to Rowlandson, which combines historical and social context with an analysis of the artists’ works. Hogarth’s prints are dense with imagery, not all of which is easy to understand. What are those things hanging on the quack doctor’s wall in Marriage-a-la-Mode III: The Inspection? Why are they there and what are they telling us? This book sets out to provide some answers, and very illuminating ones they are. I felt they deepened and enhanced my understanding of the images. 

No, I would not like to live in the 18th century! Thomas Rowlandson, The Amputation

Occasionally, however, those answers are mistaken, as other reviewers have pointed out. For example, an object Haslam describes as a crutch in Thomas Rowlandson’s The Amputation is a wooden leg. Confusingly, too, two of the images have their titles transposed so that a print by Hogarth is described as Calcar’s Anatomical Lesson and vice versa. Other issues are that some of the images in the paperback are too small, all are in black and white, and the author also mentions some works that are not illustrated at all. However, I found most of the images on line – although sometimes under different titles from the ones used in the book, which was confusing at times. I was able to consult these as I read the text, and also very usefully enlarge or zoom in on various details.

Nevertheless, I really enjoyed From Hogarth to Rowlandson: Medicine in Art in Eighteenth Century Britain. It showed me new ways of looking at images and really paying attention to the detail. In this way, the book helped to increase not only what I can learn from the images, but my enjoyment of them too.


I'll be talking about 'Writing and Researching Historical Fiction and Non-Fiction' at Bishopston Library, Gloucester Road, Bristol, BS7 8BN, on Tuesday 25 April 2023, 7.30 pm to 9.00 pm (includes break). The event is organised by the Friends of Bishopston Library to celebrate World Book Night (23 April 2023). Tickets £3. For more information and booking see Eventbrite.


Picture Credit:-

The Amputation, Thomas Rowland, 1785, The Elisha Whittelsey Collection, The Elisha Whittelsey Fund, 1959, Metropolitan Museum of Art (public domain)






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