Trafalgar Square

Trafalgar Square

I’m en route to New York with time to kill in London before heading out to Heathrow. I spent an hour or so in the David Bailey retrospective at the National Portrait Gallery (somewhat superficial; hard, I guess, to transcend the roll-call of famous faces and create great art), followed by a look at the rather moving show of Great War portraits, then sat in the sun in Trafalgar Square watching the world go by.

One of the human statues caught my eye. He has a contrivance that makes it appear that he is hovering just above the ground (the base plate, which he had covered with a blanket, must be very heavy to lug around). In the many gaps between posing with tourists he made a very lonely figure, sitting in his elaborate garb whilst people walked past either heading to the National Gallery or more interested in the the performance artists a few metres away.

Prepare for a few posts from New York over the coming days. I’m also planning to start tweeting @basil0saurus. That’s a zero not an ‘oh’ in the middle just in case you thought you could escape with the lame excuse that @basilosaurus is someone else entirely.

I am only trying to teach you to see …

Reading back through my last post recalled a visit to an exhibition of Leonardo da Vinci’s anatomical drawings at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace about a year ago. The blend of art and science in these small but highly detailed drawings gains added piquancy because the motivation, albeit somewhat obliquely, was partly religious: a better understanding of anatomy fuels Leonardo’s artistic endeavours which, mostly, result in paintings with a devotional context (The Last Supper, Madonna of the Rose …). Leonardo would have been perplexed by our modern divisions between the arts and sciences (C.P. Snow’s Two Cultures etc.) and by the science and religion divide perpetuated by Dawkins and others.


A page from one of Leonardo’s notebooks, showing a human foetus in the womb, derived in part from his dissection of a cow.

The struggle I had had with the anatomy of chironomid larvae mirrored Leonardo’s own explorations of the human body. The cultural significance of these drawings is that his own observations were replacing, and sometimes challenging, the notions handed down from Galen and other classical authorities. Yet even Leonardo was not a totally dispassionate observer of the human body: the exhibition notes examples where his drawings included non-existent elements borrowed from classical books whilst his famous drawings of human embryos are based, in part, on bovine anatomy. As I tried to capture the chironomid mouthparts, I was moving between direct observation and illustrations and diagrams in textbooks. The latter informed my interpretation of the former but, at the same time, there is a real risk that I might carry any errors from these diagrams into the interpretation of my own observations.

Perhaps the fault lies with us, looking at Leonardo’s drawings with a 21st century perspective and forgetting the constraints under which he worked? These pictures are the result of close observation of unembalmed human corpses in Milan. Working in winter made the task slightly easier but the benefits were offset, to some extent, by shorter days.  Animal corpses were much more widely available, hence the occasional tendency to extrapolate from bovine to human anatomy.

Drawing is a useful reminder of how far science – even ecology – has drifted from observation, and how quantification is, too often, an abstraction of reality as anything that can’t be counted or measured falls off the agenda. I’m reminded of Ruskin’s statement about the motivation behind his drawing classes: “I am only trying to teach you to see”.