The eighteenth-century saw a surge of interest in medical science. Private anatomical schools opened up around the country, catering for audiences in which medical students rubbed shoulders with gentleman scholars whose interests reflected the Enlightenment fascination with all aspects of the natural sciences. One of the first private schools of anatomy to open its doors in London was that founded by the Scottish expatriate Dr William Hunter in 1768. Hunter introduced the new ‘Parisian’ method of teaching anatomy, encouraging students to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty cutting up bodies, rather than relying on theoretical knowledge gleaned from books. Hunter’s teaching methods proved to be popular but the unintended consequence of this was that it led to a shortage of dead bodies for dissection.
The anatomists initially contented themselves with the regular crop of fresh corpses that could be harvested from the gallows. But eventually even the brutal standards of eighteenth-century justice failed to produce a satisfactory supply of cadavers and the anatomical schools were forced to turn to the black market in an effort to keep meat on the table. Gangs of body snatchers were hired to exhume corpses and smuggle them in via the back door. Inevitably, some of these criminals decided to shortcut the process by killing people in order to sell their corpses for dissection. The revelation of the deeds committed by Burke and Hare in Edinburgh and John Bishop and Thomas Williams in London, eventually jolted a complacent government into action. Under the terms of the Anatomy Act of 1832, medical schools were allowed to dissect bodies which remained unclaimed from prisons, workhouses and mental hospitals. Even this proved controversial, as in many cases these bodies were unclaimed because the deceased’s family was too poor for pay for a burial. The Act was therefore seized upon by radical agitators as yet another example of the injustices that were heaped upon the poor by an indifferent ruling class.
William Holland did not live to see the political disputes of the 1830s but it’s possible that he may have found himself in agreement with the agitators of this later era. He had held radical views of his own in his day and had even been jailed for distributing the works of Thomas Paine in defiance of government censorship. Chastened but not wholly deterred, Holland would go on to produce numerous scurrilous prints which vociferously attacked the reactionary policies enacted by the Tory administration of William Pitt the Younger during the 1790s. By the time this print was published in October 1803, he seems to moderated his views still further, or at least realised that after 10 years of bloody warfare against revolutionary France his customers were no longer interested in prints trumpeting the benefits of Liberté, égalité, fraternité. Like other English radicals of the period, Holland’s views on the conflict may have changed as it became clear that Bonaparte had little interest in the idealistic democratic values of 1789 and sought merely to place himself at the head of an aggressively expansionist French empire. In May 1803, the Peace of Amiens finally collapsed and war resumed. French forces began massing on the Channel coast and Britain was gripped by an invasion fever which, amongst other things, found expression in the consumption of satirical prints that spat patriotic defiance at the soon-to-be Emperor and his minions.
This print was one of a number of caricatures of Napoleon that Holland published in 1803. Most of these were patriotic in nature but in a handful of cases it appears as though Holland could not resist taking a sly jab at his old enemy Pitt, whom he still saw fit to rank alongside Bonaparte and the Devil amongst the “plagues of Europe“. The First Consul of France is shown as a ‘visible man’ – an anatomical chart in which the skin is peeled back to reveal the layers of tissue, bone and organs beneath. Each part of his anatomy is labelled with text which reveals something of his insidious character e.g. “Eyes of deep design”, “a heart as black as jet” etc. etc. The image appears to have been based on an caricature of Pitt that Holland published in 1797, which may in turn have been copied from even earlier designs by William Dent (HERE and HERE). The plate isn’t signed but it bears Holland’s characteristic script and may well have been designed, if not engraved entirely, by the publisher himself.