Thursday, 8 August 2013

A Dinner Date with Death

When someone is described as having a passion for life a particular image is conjured up. But a passion for death?
On Tuesday I went to Blacks Dean Street London, a Georgian building full of quirky rooms and eclectic furniture, to hear Dr Lindsey Fitzharris talk about the history of surgery, being a chirurgeon and aspects of death. Morbid, maybe, but researching possible characters is proving fascinating.
This attractive, exuberant speaker brought death to life. Calling herself the Chirurgeon's Apprentice, Dr Fitzharris has her own website The Chirurgeons Apprentice where you can find information about that subject that we all avoid talking about, and so much more.


Drinking a gin based punch, we listened to Dr Fitzharris explain how she became interested in death as a young child and how this then led to her career. As she explained, death is very much part of life and that when the body dies there are three stages, the death of the body, the burial or cremation and then when that person's name is spoken for the very last time.I had not heard this theory before. But it struck such a resonance, as choosing a name for a character is always something I ponder over and quite often the names chosen will have a provenance in reality.

  We then moved to the dinning room, lined with shell wall lamps and Hogarthian prints to indulge our morbid curiosity further.


 Over a sumptuous candlelight dinner,with a syphilitic skull as a central table decoration, we heard tales from The Gin-Lane Gazette, recounted by the cartoonist Adrian Teal, including the story of the perplexing case of the late Mary Toft who gave birth to seventeen rabbits.
Below is exhibit A340 on loan from  Barts Pathology Museum provided by Carla Connolly. Each table had its own object for discussion.


 Then we were introduced to Pia Interlandi and her garments for the grave.These literally are clothes to die for. Pia explained that clothes are made for the living and that when death occurs the clothing requirements are rather different due to the weight and physical state of the body. Her garments are made from hemp and silk, loose fitting with ties to knot rather than be formed into a bow, as they will never be undone. The veils so soft, so exquisite, a Miss Havisham burial robe. I hesitate to say, I coveted them, almost in a guilty way. Is it terribly morbid to choose something to be buried in or do you just leave that decision to someone else? Should you even think about it and what does that say about you? Difficult.

Then the Raven Master from the Tower of London gave a marvellous demonstration on knot tying with a description of how hanging developed in London. From short to long drops , from slip knots to the hangman's noose you can be sure that death was 'slow and agonising' Fascinating, I am sure that any child who enjoys the Horrible Histories series would be enthralled to hear this man talk.

At this point just before pudding, the leeches popped in and tried to join us on the table. Thankfully, Dr Fitzharris kept the lid securely closed, explaining the practice of using leeches and how they were collected by women who would wade into water and pull up their skirts to attract the leeches. When the leeches had had their fill they would fall off and could be gathered up to pass on to practitioners. We also handled bloodletting and cupping equipment.

At this point it was time for a wander to look at more exhibits including blood splattered fascinators made by Jillian Drujon of  Feather and Flask previously mentioned: [My Inner Georgian] and taxidermied mice made by Shannon Harman .


Dr Lindsey Fitzharris is making a documentary called ' Medicines's Dark Secrets' in conjunction with Big baby Productions Ltd. This program will explore how pre-anaesthetic surgery has helped in the development of modern day medicine and surgery. I for one, cannot wait to find out more.


I apologise if some of the photographs are a little dark, but it was a dark night in every sense.

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