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Flesh poems: Henry Tonks and the art of surgery

Taylor and Francis
Publication Date
  • History Of Art
  • Medicine


This article focuses on Henry Tonks’ pastel studies of wounded First World War servicemen before, after, and during facial surgery. Viewed alongside archival photographs of the same patients from the Cambridge Hospital at Aldershot and The Queen’s Hospital in Sidcup, Tonks’ drawings disturb the conventions both of medical illustration and portraiture: they are discussed here in relation to the visual cultures of modern medicine (in particular nineteenth and twentieth-century traditions of medical illustration and photography) and the artist’s own thoughts on artistic objectivity and beauty. For Tonks, good drawing was tactile: without this sensibility and skill, he believed, the draughtsman’s art was like playing a piano without hearing the notes. In light of Tonks’ wartime collaboration with the surgeon Harold Gillies this paper explores the hypothesis that the history of surgery – and to some extent the history of medical representation – is a history of touch as much as a product of visual practices and conventions.

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