Anatomical Art in the Royal Academy

Anatomical artist Eleanor Crook reflects on the University of Reading’s Minnie Jane Hardman Collection.

‘Lady Artist’: Minnie Jane Hardman (née Shubrook)

Minnie Jane Hardman (née Shubrook) and I attended the Royal Academy Schools at points a century apart. Hardman was a student at the Royal Academy in the 1880s and I trained there myself in the 1990s. The University of Reading owns over 125 original pieces by Hardman, including examinations on perspective, anatomical and life drawings, and examples of her superb sketches and stippling – many of which were awarded prizes by the Academy. With members from the University’s Health Humanities Research Group, I looked through Hardman’s anatomical studies and sketchbook earlier this month. Looking through her artschools work from the Academy was very touching and certainly gave me a lot to think about. Her figure drawings and anatomy studies were a discipline in their day, more formative, I suspect, than enjoyable. Like practicing scales and arpeggios at a classical music conservatoire, one was there to hone skills and train the machine of rendering within the perceptual and recording apparatus that that style of representation demanded. It must have been such hard work, especially as it was pitched in competition against the men at the Academy (who would have received a deeper training and had the advantage of higher expectations). I expect that for any budding art student each drawing was to begin a welter of self-doubt and intimidation under the supervision of strict and critical masters. Not to mention the pressure of actual Rubenses, actual Reynoldses, and actual Delacroixes bearing down from the walls of the academy! In fact, I am reminded of a famous passage from Karl Marx:

The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis, they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honoured disguise and borrowed language.

The Academy’s schools’s august tradition certainly had that effect on me and some of my contemporaries.

These reflections make me love, really love, Hardman’s drawings and appreciate how wonderful that they are being cared for, studied, and rescued from obscurity by Naomi Lebens, the University’s art curator. Naomi showed us a little book of press cuttings, left by Hardman. I think, on some level, that the artist left her press cuttings book for researchers, thinking they would find it useful. The most obscure of us harbour a fantasy that one day our art school drawings will be dusted off and looked through by a sympathetic eye – that one day we might make something that would give our sketches a retrospective importance. Otherwise, we’d throw them away.

Eleanor Crook trained in sculpture at Central St Martins and the Royal Academy and makes figures and effigies in wax, carved wood, and lifelike media. She has also made a special study of anatomy and has sculpted anatomical and pathological waxworks for the Gordon Museum of Pathology at Guy’s Hospital, London’s Science Museum, and the Royal College of Surgeons of England. She exhibits internationally in both fine art and science museum contexts.

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