‘Delineated as large as the life’: William Cheselden’s atlas of the bones

The surgeon and anatomist William Cheselden (1688–1752) planned a three-part masterwork of comparative anatomy. Sadly, only the first volume was ever published. But gladly, it’s a stunning book of anatomical illustrations.

‘Every bone in the human body being here delineated as large as the life, and again reduced to lesser scales, in order to shew them united to one another’. So begins Osteographia, or The anatomy of the bones, the glorious anatomical atlas Cheselden published in 1733. He goes on to describe how he and the artists involved in the project ‘found it impossible to execute the difficult parts of such a work’ simply by observing and measuring the bones they wished to depict. Instead, he constructed a ‘convenient’ camera obscura in which to draw, and so ‘finished the rest [of the drawings] with more accuracy and less labour, doing in this way in a few minutes more than could be done without in many hours’. The use of the camera obscura is even shown on the title page of the book.

A copy of this book now in the RCP library was owned by the Norfolk surgeon Thomas Edward Amyot (1817–1895). Amyot signed the title page with his name and the date 1835. In that year he would have just started his medical studies. Although the book was already more than 100 years old by that point, it could still have been a very useful study tool: the illustrations are extremely detailed and accurate.

Signature of Thomas Edward Amyot on flyleaf of Osteographia, or The anatomy of the bones. William Cheselden, published London, 1733
Illustration of the human spine in Osteographia, or The anatomy of the bones. William Cheselden, published London, 1733

Cheselden intended his Osteographia to be the first in a three-part series of books about human and comparative anatomy. Unlike Cheselden’s 1713 student manual The Anatomy of the Human Body, Osteographia was not a financial success for author or publisher, so the following two volumes never appeared. The earlier book was a handy pocket-sized reference work, which certainly aided its success. Ostegraphia is a large book – known to librarians as an ‘elephant folio’ – 50cm tall and 36cm wide. It would have been a luxury acquisition fit to grace a stately library, and 300 copies are known to have been printed.

Unlike his earlier book, in the Osteographia Cheselden depicts the skeletal systems of humans and animals: the engraved and etched illustrations include deer, dogs, turtles, an elephant tooth, birds, fish and a crocodile.

Illustrations of a male human skeleton and the skull of a male tiger in Osteographia, or The anatomy of the bones. William Cheselden, published London, 1733

The binding on the book today is still the same one with which it was originally issued. This is unusual in our rare books collections: most of the books have been through two or more bindings in their lives and few retain their original publishers’ or booksellers’ coverings. The book has clearly been well and heavily used by generations of owners and had become worn and fragile. The boards inside the front and back covers were spongy and the corners were coming away; the covers themselves were scuffed and were partly detached from the spine. It was in need of some attention. Expert conservation work has given the book a new lease of life, making it available for research and study in the RCP library.

Osteographia before and after conservation work

Katie Birkwood, rare books and special collections librarian

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