William Cheselden’s Memento Mori and Skeletons at Prayer: Guest Post by Morbid Anatomy

Cheselden 1

Cheselden 1

William Cheselden (1688–1752) is remembered today as one of the greatest English surgeons; he was surgeon to Queen Caroline, wife of King George II, to whom he dedicated the wonderful, epically scaled book Osteographia, or the anatomy of the bones  (1733), which is described by the NYAM Library as “one of the finest of English works containing anatomic illustrations.” The copperplate images were done by Cheselden and his engravers, Gerard van der Gucht and Mr. Shinevoet, with the use of the camera obscura—a pre-photographic drawing aid; this is delightfully alluded to in this wonderful image featured on the title page (images 1 & 2) .

Cheselden 2

Cheselden 2

The book is best known for its large scale and exquisite renderings of skeletons brandishing bones (image 3); leaning on skulls (image 4); with “the same proportions with the venus de Medicis” (image 5); “in the same proportions and attitude with the Belvidere Apollo” (image 6); or, most famously of all, “the side view of the skeleton of a very robust man” at prayer (image 7).

Less seen—yet equally delightful—are the wonderfully imaginative anatomically-themed initial capital letters (8-12); the playful chapter openers (13-19); the memento-mori themed end piece (30); and delicately exquisite animal skeletons (20-22) which fill the book. Despite—or perhaps because of—these luxurious touches, this large-scale atlas was a financial failure.

This post was written by Joanna Ebenstein of the Morbid Anatomy blog, library and event series; click here to find out more.

6 thoughts on “William Cheselden’s Memento Mori and Skeletons at Prayer: Guest Post by Morbid Anatomy

  1. Exquisite illustrations! It’s a shame the book was a financial failure. That seems so often the case with good art. Only recognized after the artist is deceased.
    And thank you for giving the reader the ability to scroll through the illustrations. How do you do that? Is it a “slide-show” program of WordPress?

    • Hi Joanne, we created a gallery. You’ll see the option if you click “add media” in a draft. We’re glad you like it – galleries are a great way to share a lot of images and, in this case, avoid the difficult task of narrowing the illustrations down to a few. It would be hard to pick!

  2. Pingback: Winsome Fetal Skeletons Bearing Scythes: Monro’s Traité d’ostéologie of 1759: Guest post by Morbid Anatomy | Books, Health and History

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