Filming Harvey: ceaseless motion brought to life

Every year, the exhibition team here at the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) like to put on a couple of exhibitions to showcase our fantastic collections and the stories that make up our intriguing 500 year history. This year planning has already begun for our first exhibition for 2018, entitled Ceaseless motion: William Harvey’s experiments in circulation.

In August 2017 the filming for our exhibition Ceaseless motion took place. As next year will be our 500th anniversary we thought we’d try something a little bit different this time. With the help of Chocolate Films and Spectrum Drama, the exhibition film will recreate one of William Harvey’s anatomy lectures that he would have given at the RCP in around 1618. These Lumleian lectures, as they were known, were significant as they were the first place where William Harvey first publicly presented his theory on the circulation of the blood.

William Harvey (1578–1657). Oil on canvas by unknown artist, c.1650.

The filming took place on the 21 August in the atmospheric surroundings of the RCP Censor’s Room. The lighting was intentionally kept low, to recreate the darkness of a winter’s evening. We know that the lectures usually took place in the coldness of winter to help preserve the body, which would be dissected over 3 or 4 days. 

In August 2017 the filming for our Ceaseless motion exhibition took place. As next year will be our 500th anniversary we thought we’d try something a little bit different this time.

Our own cadaver was thankfully only a hapless member of staff whose only concern was how long they would be able to hold their breath when they were supposed to be acting dead. The dissection was carried out by our very own Harvey, also known as Bob Sinfield, who made sure he dressed the part by wearing his best 17th century costume and donning a pair of white sleeves and an apron. We know that Harvey would have worn the sleeves and an apron, as the dissection would have been a bloody task. Often, a spare set was on hand, in case Harvey became too splattered in blood to continue.

Damiano Petrucci of Chocolate Films shoots some close-up shots of some of the RCP’s rare books that will feature in our Ceaseless motion exhibition.

Once we had the acted sequences in the bag, attention moved on to the ‘talking head’ interviews with our two William Harvey experts, Professors Andrew Cunningham and Ludmilla Jordonova. These interviews are designed to provide a narrative context to the acted scenes, so the viewer knows what they are watching and why it is significant. It also gives the film another visual image to cut to, so the viewer does not get too bored of seeing the same scene again and again.

Illustration of experiments on the veins of the arm in Exercitatio anatomica de motu cordis et sanguinis in animalibus William Harvey, published Frankfurt, 1628.

The end result of the exhibition team’s efforts will soon be available to view in our exhibition when it opens on 19 January 2018, alongside many fascinating items from William Harvey’s life and times.  In particular, keep your eyes open for Harvey’s demonstration rod, used by the famous physician during his Lumleian lectures.

Matthew Wood, exhibitions officer

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Ceaseless motion: William Harvey's experiments in circulation is open 19 January – 26 July 2018. Free entry. For full opening dates and times, please check the exhibition's page before you visit.