King's Gordon Museum of Pathology, based at Guy’s Hospital, is the largest medical museum in the UK and contains some rare and unique artefacts, including the original specimens of kidneys, adrenal glands and lymph nodes. The Museum’s primary function has always been to help train medical, dental and biomedical students and professionals to diagnose disease and as such it provides a range of services and functions to the Faculty of Life Sciences & Medicine and to medical professionals.
Housed in the Museum and on permanent display are also a number of important historic collections. The Lam Qua pre-operative tumour paintings, the specimen and artefact collections of physicians Thomas Hodgkin, Thomas Addison, Richard Bright and Astley Cooper, and Joseph Towne's anatomical and 19th century dermatological wax models, many of which are still used for teaching purposes.
Sculptor and medical modeller Eleanor Crook has been artist in residence at the Gordon Museum since 2007, and continues the tradition of Victorian anatomical sculptor Joseph Towne by creating anatomical and dermatological wax sculptures. She has investigated his techniques through experimentation and by working with the counterpart wax collections of Clemente Susini in Italian museums. She uses the collection of the museum to research her own expressive and anatomically and surgically accurate sculptural works which bridge art and science and these can be seen both in the Gordon Museum and in a number of medical museum collections internationally.
At the Museum Eleanor often works in wax directly from the specimens and from the Towne models, colour matching dermatological symptoms or studying anatomical details to ensure the convincing verisimilitude which wax performs so well. The tools she uses are almost identical to Towne’s, some being home-made and created from sticks, kitchen implements, and even a paint-stripper gun. Once constructed, the figures are painted with thinned-down oil paint because, as Eleanor has explained, ordinary wax dyes fade, especially reds. Hair is either sculpted or made from real human hair contributed from haircuts. One surreal sculpture’s dense coarse hair style was made from dog hair, specifically Eleanor's greyhound, Charlie. Eleanor sculpts heads of hair strand by strand, meaning that a full life-size head of hair can take around ten days to complete.
Eleanor's first sculpture was a 40cm model of a man with bubonic plague (left) because Towne never created one, likely due to the fact that he may never have seen a case of the rare disease in order to create a model. As research, Eleanor gathered photographic sources from an outbreak of bubonic plague in Vietnam in the 1960s, and some from a late 19th century outbreak in Brazil photographed by Dr Camillo Terni. The model was completed in 2008 and includes prominent details of the figure’s buboes, swollen glands and gangrenous fingers.
Eleanor also learned to model in silicon from prosthetics expert Dr Trevor Coward at King's Department of Tissue Engineering & Biophotonics. Silicon, although not as time resistant as wax, has more mobile qualities to the material and so she has used silicon to create animatronic sculptures. In the interest of making figures more lifelike than the living, using a grant from the Wellcome Trust she developed the incorporation of electronic animatronics systems into the models so that her moribund and macabre creations twitch and mutter.
Expanding the teaching activities of the museum through art, Eleanor runs the Anatomy Drawing course for the Camberwell School of Art, the Medical Art Student Selected Compenent module for Barts and the London School of Medicine and Dentistry, Anatomy Drawing for the Royal College of Art and the anatomical summer schools at the Ruskin School of Art at Oxford University. She is a member of the Medical Artists’ Association, which meets regularly at the Gordon Museum of Pathology and helps curator William Edwards present the yearly Museum art prize exhibition.
Eleanor also runs drawing and wax modelling sessions for the medical students in the Faculty of Life Sciences & Medicine. She sees drawing as a way for the students interpret what they are seeing, to learn it and memorise it in a different way. Similarly, she finds that her approach can reinvigorate drawing classes with art students, saying: 'life drawing class becomes death drawing: they see the complexity that lies beneath the skin.'
In the film below, Eleanor demonstrates a few of the techniques employed when making a wax model.
A Room of One's Own
Eleanor sculpted a waxwork portrait of Virginia Woolf which is now permanently installed in the entrance hall of King's Virginia Woolf Building. She sits elegantly poised in a room of her own, peering quizzically at visitors to her own Alma Mater, an expression of playful if supercilious enquiry upon her lips. The statue's outfit is based on a series of photographs of Woolf taken in 1923 by Lady Ottoline Morell and it holds a copy of a book design to represent Woolf's novel A Room of One's Own, a facsimile first edition with a book jacket designed by her sister Vanessa Bell. The commission was devised by Professor Clare Brant and Dr Ruth Richardson for the Centre for Life Writing Research. The site is close to the Bloomsbury Theatre and King's Strand campus where Woolf studied Classics. The statue was unveiled in late 2015 with attendees from the Virginia Woolf Society.
The waxwork is installed inside a wardrobe in the foyer of King's Virginia Woolf Building on Kingsway and was unveiled in October 2015 as part of the Arts & Humanities Festival.
The film below shows Eleanor's process for creating the Virginia Woolf sculpture.
And The Band Played On: a history of wartime plastic surgery in wax sculpture
And The Band Played On (below), on display at the Museum, consists of five life-size sculptures of soldiers from different wars in history, all suffering from serious facial injuries and displaying the reconstructive plastic surgery techniques of their time. They are performing in a military brass band with antique and battered instruments, a melancholy parade. From research gathered at the Gordon Museum and the Gillies Archive, Eleanor dressed the sculptures in authentic period uniforms and bear documented injuries from various conflicts, including the Crimean War, the First and Second World Wars and the present day. The piece recognises the skill of wartime plastic surgeons and nurses as well as the immense bravery and fellowship of the wounded servicemen and women, both throughout history and today.
Regarding the installation, Eleanor commented: 'I set out to make a commemoration of the story of the development of wartime facial surgery. It couples the amazing technical inventiveness of surgeons and nurses with the stoicism and endurance of the servicemen and women who underwent, and are undergoing, experimental operations. The psychological challenge of adjusting to a changed appearance is something we can all empathise with and the violence suffered is all too painfully visible. It is a story that is often kept away from the public eye, but one that must be told if we are to understand the terrible risks run by our service people in the past, present and future.'
Ceroplatics – Modelling the Flesh
Eleanor will be in residence at the 2017 International Conference of Wax Modelling, titled Ceroplatics – Modelling the Flesh, demonstrating the historic wax techniques of Clemente Susini and lecturing on her experiences working with historic wax sculpture collections. Eleanor's paper is titled Immortality wax. A volatile material. The conference runs from 1 to 3 September 2017 and will be held at the Museum of London for the first day and the Gordon Museum of Pathology for the final two days. More information about the programme, speakers and the call for papers is available on the conference website.
Eleanor Crook trained in sculpture at Central Saint Martins and the Royal Academy and makes figures and effigies in wax, carved wood and lifelike media. As well as for the Gordon Museum of Pathology, she has also created waxworks for London's Science Museum, and the Royal College of Surgeons of England. She exhibits internationally in both fine art and science museum contexts. She learned the technique of forensic facial reconstruction modelling from Richard Neave and has demonstrated and taught this to artists, forensic anthropology students, law enforcement officers and plastic surgeons as well as incorporating this practice in her own sculpted work.
Eleanor is a member of the Medical Artists' Association, runs a course in Anatomy drawing at the Royal College of Art and one at Camberwell School of Art, and lectures on the MA Art & Science course at Central Saint Martins School of Art and the Forensic and Medical Art MSc at Dundee University. She appears at regular public workshops for the Clod Ensemble and the Vrolik Museum in Amsterdam. She teaches anatomy, forensic and anatomical sculpture intensively at the summer school courses in Oxford at the Ruskin School of Art in collaboration with Dr Sarah Simblet.