Fillers One hundred years ago

The medical aspects of the Royal Academy

BMJ 2002; 325 doi: (Published 10 August 2002) Cite this as: BMJ 2002;325:312

In former years we have felt it our duty, as guide, philosopher and friend of the medical profession, to run our eye over the walls of the Royal Academy, and see which pictures, if any, had any bearing on our craft. This year, however, has been a sad disappointment, for only two of the 795 canvases that have passed the scrutiny of the Hanging Committee have any direct bearing on the subjects with which we are most familiar. The first of these, 190, is “The Borgia” by Orchardson, and it tells a terrible tale with grim dramatic force and admirable technical skill. There has been a little dinner of four, in the open air, under some funereal trees, and a sky from which the brightness of day is only just beginning to fade. Two of the guests have gone, the third perforce remains, and the host sits watching him with a subtle and most impressive blend of triumph and satisfied ambition, tinged perhaps with just a shadow of regret. The victim has fallen forward on the table, one hand convulsively grasps the cloth, his face is hidden, some convulsive movement has flung over his glass, and he is either dead, or rapidly nearing the end. Speculation naturally turns the mind to consider what kind of poison has been employed in this case. The popular belief is that the Borgias had the guilty knowledge of various lethal drugs, mostly vegetable and tasteless, which were generally dissolved in wine, and whose presence in the body defied the rude methods of analysis known in those days. Some of them may be supposed to have so far imitated natural physiological processes, or those of disease, as to give rise to no suspicion which could be safely translated into practical action against such a powerful ruling family. In this case the poor young man—for such he seems to be—looks as though he had simply fallen asleep after a carouse, and in due time he will be removed to the grave of his forefathers, away from the intrigues and dangers and temptations of mediaeval Italy. No. 295 introduces us to “The Plague,” under the auspices of the Hon. John Collier, who has painted with ghastly realism the figure of a smart lady of the Middle Ages smitten by the swift thunderbolt of that terrible disease, and lying in all her finery with her pale face turned up to the sky, while her terror-stricken companion makes hastily for the door.

(BMJ 1902;i:1168)

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