Classicism and Sir Charles Bell’s Engravings of the Nerves

Allister Neher
Montreal, Quebec, Canada (Summer 2017)


Charles Bell, A Series of Engravings,
Explaining the Course of the Nerves

Readers of medical humanities journals have become accustomed to seeing articles on anatomical illustration and its indebtedness to the techniques and conventions of the fine arts. As diverse as connections between these two areas can be, they are often more complicated than we might expect, especially when we examine the circumstances in which the illustrations were created. Sir Charles Bell’s A Series of Engravings, Explaining the Course of the Nerves provides a fine, layered example of this in relation to nineteenth century British neoclassicism.1

Scottish anatomist Charles Bell (1774-1842) was knighted for his contributions to physiology and neurology. Many of his most significant discoveries are compiled in The Nervous System of the Human Body (1830), in which he sets out the distinction between sensory and motor nerves and traces their functions in the body.2 Bell was born in Edinburgh and received his early education from his mother Margaret (his father William, a clergyman of the Episcopal Church of Scotland, having died when he was five). Charles had three older brothers, Robert, George and John.  Following his studies at the University of Edinburgh, Charles was apprenticed to his brother John, also an eminent anatomist and surgeon.  Bell’s mother valued the fine arts and made sure that Charles and John had a substantial artistic education. She must have been well connected in the Edinburgh art world because she was able to engage popular and important artists, such as David Allan, to instruct her children. As we learn in a letter to his brother George, Allan made a deep impression on the young Charles:

Allan, the painter, was a man very dear to me in my early boyhood. There was sunshine the afternoon he came to me. He was quite a man to a boy’s humour. He was wont at all times to salute me ‘Ha, brother brush, let’s see what you have been doing!’ To him I am very principally indebted for my pleasure in drawing. . . He gave me his very beautiful studies from the Antique, and from Raphael’s cartoons, to copy, and was very good-natured in his praise.3

We know that Allan enchanted the boys with accounts of his voyages to Rome, the European artistic capital of the day, and he kindled in them a desire to make a pilgrimage to the great city themselves, which they both did later in life.4 Allan, and other like-minded Edinburgh artists, instilled in Charles and John an appreciation of classical artistic values. In the first half of the nineteenth century neoclassicism was still a dominant aesthetic doctrine and both Charles and John remained committed to its principles throughout their lives.

It is not surprising then that when Charles turned to illustrate A Series of Engravings, Explaining the Course of the Nerves (1803), he chose as the model for the first illustration – a scheme of the nerves of the face – the head of an antique statue (Figure 1). The head bears a close resemblance to the Hermes in Praxiteles’ ‘Hermes and the Infant Dionysus.’ In reality, Bell could not have used this head as a model because the statue was not discovered until 1877. Most likely, Bell was so familiar with the style of Praxiteles from studying reproductions of works attributed to the great Greek sculptor and his followers, such as the Farnese Hermes, that he was able to fashion his own Praxitelian head that, remarkably, looked like the Hermes that was to be discovered in 1877.5 Perhaps the choice of a Hermes figure was also a piece of good humored visual rhetoric, given that he was the messenger of the gods. Who better to herald Bell’s discoveries?

Bell was not the only or the first anatomist to use classical statuary as a model.6 Jean-Gilbert Salvage Anatomie du gladiateur combattant, applicable aux beaux arts (1812), for instance, makes excellent use of the famous Borghese Gladiator statue for his manual of artistic anatomy.7 While not unique, Bell’s book does provide us with a fine example of how classical artistic values, and their restatement in neoclassical art theory, influenced anatomical illustration in early nineteenth century Britain.

Neoclassicism found beauty in the refined use of line and the elegant delimitation of form. Proportionality and the harmonious inter-relation of the work’s constitutive elements were important as well. Adhering to this sophisticated vision of beauty, with its long and noble heritage, helped to elevate those who were associated with it. Being seen as discerning men of culture and cultivated taste could only have benefited anatomists and surgeons, who were still held in rather dim esteem by the general public and not unreservedly welcome in loftier social circles. Charles Bell was without doubt a well-educated and cultivated man, and he fit the image effortlessly, but he was not well-known at this point. It would have helped the promotion of the young anatomist’s new book to have its content conveyed through the venerated visual language of the classical world. Using this style would have helped the reception of Bell’s book because classical aesthetics had also come to be associated with empirical truth. Classicism’s focus on the accurate representation of the body and correct proportions made it seem as though it was the very embodiment of nature’s principles: correct anatomy and proportions are revealed through the careful study of nature, and nature is never wrong.8

It might strike other readers, however, that neoclassicism is not an artistic style well suited to anatomical illustration. After all, aesthetically it moves the process of representation towards idealization and the reduction of a subject’s individualizing features. Would not anatomical illustration prefer the opposite? In many instances one would think so, but Bell’s aim in this publication was not in conflict with neoclassicism’s stylistic directives. He says of Figure 1 that it “is not to be considered as an accurate representation of those intricate Nerves, which take their course through the bones of the face, but merely as a plan, which gives a simple arrangement of the first seven Nerves of the Cranium.”9 He even labels the illustration a “Scheme of The Nerves of the Face & Eye.” Since simplification is one of Bell’s goals and the aim is not to depict some actual configuration of nerves in a particular specimen, the lines that represent the nerves can be made more uniform and distributed in a more pleasing arrangement than one would find in a subject on the dissecting table. This softening of nature’s irregularities allows for a composition that is in harmony with neoclassical aesthetics.

The medium Bell chose is also well suited to the purpose of his illustrations. Metal plate engraving uses inscribed lines to capture the outlines of things and to create the hatching that conveys their volumes and textures. It is a very linear medium and perfect for depicting the paths of the nerves, which of course are themselves linear. Line is the principal visual element for neoclassicism, and thus there is a strong harmony between the content of the illustration and its form of visual expression. It is a successful and attractive image. No wonder then that John Bell wanted Charles to help with the illustrations for his own books.

There is an interesting conflict, though, between Charles Bell’s use of neoclassical aesthetics and his brother John’s doctrines about the place of art in anatomical illustration. Charles was responsible for a large number of the drawings (and some of the text) in John’s monumental The Anatomy of the Human Body.10 None of its illustrations however could be described as neoclassical, and most of them are grittier than what was typically produced in that era. In fact, some of John Bell’s works, particularly the Engravings, Explaining the Anatomy of the Bones, Muscles and Joints, have illustrations that are usually described by non-medical viewers as gruesome and horrific.11 John Bell wanted to kill the fanciful artistic tradition of the obliging or self-anatomizing corpse and replace it with the bleak realities of the dissection room. Artistic imagination and the history of art have no place in anatomical illustration. The bracing truth is all that is required. Interestingly, John Bell was also a committed supporter of classical aesthetics and he wrote the best book on that artistic tradition ever produced by a scientific figure.12 How one reconciles his anatomical illustrations with his aesthetics, and accounts for apparent discrepancies with his collaborator and brother Charles, is a complicated story that requires a deeper excavation of the foundations of the relationship between anatomical illustration and art theory in eighteenth and nineteenth century Britain.


Image credit

Charles Bell, A Series of Engravings, Explaining the Course of the Nerves (London: T. N. Longman and O. Rees, 1803), Plate I. By permission of the Osler Library of the History of Medicine, McGill University



  1. Charles Bell, A Series of Engravings, Explaining the Course of the Nerves (London: T. N. Longman and O. Rees, 1803).
  2. Charles Bell, The Nervous System of the Human Body: Embracing the Papers Delivered to the Royal Society on the Subject of the Nerves (London: Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, and Green, 1830).
  3. Charles Bell, Letters of Sir Charles Bell, K.H., F.R.S.L. & E. selected from his correspondence with his brother George Joseph Bell (London: John Murray, 1810), 14.
  4. Amédée Pichot, The life and Labours of Sir Charles Bell, K.G.H, F.R.S.S., L. & E. (London: Richard Bentley, 1860). 24.
  5. The Farnese Hermes, which is a Roman copy, used to stand at the doorway to the gallery of the Farnese Palace in Rome. It was purchased by the British Museum and entered its collection in 1864.
  6. The history of the relationship between anatomical illustration and antique statuary is a complex one. See Clare Guest, “Art, Antiquarianism and Early Anatomy.” Medical Humanities – BMJ Dec 2014, 40 (2) 97-104.
  7. Jean-Gilbert Salvage Anatomie du gladiateur combattant, applicable aux beaux arts, ou traité des os, des muscles, du mécanisme des mouvemens, des proportions et des caractères du corps humain (Paris, chez l’auteur, 1812).
  8. Fiona Rose-Greenland, “The Pantheon Marbles as Icons of Nationalism in Nineteenth-Century Britain.” Nations and Nationalism 19 (4) 2013: 654-673.
  9. Charles Bell, A Series of Engravings, 3.
  10. John Bell, The Anatomy of the Human Body (Edinburgh: Printed for Cadell and Davis, London; and G. Mudie and Son, Edinburgh, 1797-1804).
  11. John Bell, Engravings, Explaining the Anatomy of the Bones, Muscles and Joints (Edinburgh: printed by John Paterson, for Bell and Bradfute, and T. Duncan; and J. Johnson, and G. G. G. & J. Robinsons, London,1794).
  12. John Bell, Observations on Italy, 1st edition, ed. Rosine Bell. (William Blackwood, Edinburgh, 1825).



ALLISTER NEHER, Ph.D, a former Humanities professor at Dawson College, is a research associate of the Osler Library of the History of Medicine at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. His research interests include the history of art theory and the intersection of art and science, especially in anatomical illustration. His most recent publications include: ‘Christopher Wren, Thomas Willis and the Depiction of the Brain and Nerves,’ Journal of Medical Humanities; ‘The Truth about our Bones: William Cheselden’s Osteographia,’ Medical History; ‘Robert Knox and the Anatomy of Beauty,’ Medical Humanities-BMJ; and ‘William Clift’s Sketches of Executed Murderers,’ Social History of Medicine.


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