Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Smugglerius unveiled

When he was hanged from the gallows at Tyburn, in London, the world seemed well rid of James Langar, a robber who had preyed on Georgian gentlemen strolling through Hyde Park. Now, almost 250 years after his execution, a cast of the criminal’s body has been identified in Edinburgh College of Art where, ironically, it is used to inspire students of life drawing.

Langar’s unlikely immortality has been uncovered after a remarkable piece of detective work by Joan Smith, an artist and lecturer, and Jeanne Cannizzo, an anthropologist. Intrigued by the sinuous cast, nicknamed Smugglerius, which has been an essential element in anatomy lessons for generations of Scottish art students, the pair decided to trace its original identity.

They searched through libraries in Edinburgh and London, pored over trial records and dates from the Old Bailey and examined details of the original Smugglerius casting. Finally they had pieced together an extraordinary life-after-death story that will be told next week in an exhibition entitled Smugglerius Unveiled.

Though it took months to identify Langar, Ms Smith said she had known from the outset that it was unusual for a full body cast to survive intact. In the 18th century a guilty verdict for a capital offence brought with it the certainty that a criminal’s remains would be handed over to medical science for dissection. Condemned men would go the gallows knowing that they would have no Christian burial.

Langar owed his preservation to the intervention of William Hunter, the surgeon and anatomist whose eyes lighted on the corpse shortly after it had been cut down from the gibbet. Dr Hunter was immediately struck by the body’s muscularity, the result of Langer’s eight years in the army.

“The story goes that Hunter saw the body and thought he had such a fantastic physique that, instead of cutting him up, he would take his skin off and make a cast,” Ms Smith said.

“He took the skin and the fat off so all the musculature was visible and then had a plaster cast made. It is a fantastic specimen. You can see all the muscle strands and the fibres and you can see the muscles working. It is a bit macabre, but it is fascinating.”

Hunter, a keen patron of the arts, had the cast made by Agostino Carlini for students at the Royal Academy. The body was arranged in a famous classical pose known as the Dying Gaul. It is thought that William Blake studied the original. A drawing of the cast, by William Linnell, is held at the Fitzwilliam Museum, in Cambridge.

Though Carlini’s original work is lost, copies are held at the Royal Academy and in Edinburgh, both cast by William Pink. The Edinburgh piece has been at the college since its foundation in the 1850s and has been an inspiration for thousands of students.

“I was taught anatomy looking at Smugglerius, studying skeletons and looking at live models,” said Ms Smith. “I drag him out from time to time and point out his muscles to the students. It is a fantastic way to see forms of body that you cannot see in a living person. “Anatomy for artists tends to be about superficial structures — the surface forms, rather than what the liver looks like.”

In today’s climate of community sentencing and leniency towards first-time offenders, Langar’s punishment may seem harsh. He was convicted as a footpad, a highwayman without a horse, and was arrested by the Bow Street Runners — sometimes called the first professional police force in London — when he was home in bed with a woman. Among his clothes the Runners found items that had been stolen from his victims. This evidence, and the testimony ofwitnesses, were enough to convict him of armed robbery, then a capital offence.

Langar’s final known words make chilling reading amid the court records, said Ms Smith. He is reported to have said: “I see they are determined to swear my life away, I leave myself to the mercy of the Court.”

In the Old Bailey papers from February 21, 1776, the court recorder immediately notes both verdict and sentence: “GUILTY. Death.”

Picture by James Glossop. Is he a good photographer? Judge for yourself here: James Glossop

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