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A male skeleton in a 'deal' (pine) cupboard

Museum number: M1490

Not on display

Curatorial note

This male human skeleton was the sculptor John Flaxman’s studio skeleton, which he obtained from an unknown source. It was probably the model for the Flaxman drawings later engraved by Landseer and published in Anatomical Studies of the Bones and Muscles for the use of artists, from drawings by the late John Flaxman, London, 1833, a copy of which is in Soane's Library.

The skeleton still hangs inside the 'deal case' [pine cupboard] in which Flaxman kept it (SM XF465). Soane kept this in the Monk's Cell in the basement, presumably to add to its 'Gothick' character.

The skeleton was amongst the last group of items from Flaxman's collection to be acquired by Soane (he bought several groups of objects from Flaxman's sister-in-law: the Flaxmans and Soanes had been friends for many years) and it entered the collection during 1836. Soane died in January 1837 and the Trustees of the Museum then tried to return the skeleton and the 'skull and horns of an animal' to Maria Denman (Flaxman's sister-in-law) saying they were unsuitable. Miss Denman's reply is in the Soane archive, dated 3 March 1837 and was robust. She emphasized that they had been sent to Soane 'one on the 10th of December last, the other some months back, and placed by [his] ... orders in his museum where you found them - And the key of the Box that contained the Skeleton Sir John kept himself. They now form part of the collection you hold in trust for the nation - not only to prevent their being removed from the Premises but also that the arrangement Sir John Soane made should not be altered or interfered with. You will therefore see the propriety of my declining to receive these things back again, nor have I a better right to them than the greatest stranger....'.

The mention in Miss Denman's letter of Soane keeping the key to the box himself implies that it was kept closed and locked, only to be opened under his direct supervision. As as result it seems extremely unlikely that the skeleton was generally on view to visitors for the few months that it was here during Sir John's lifetime. The first Handbook published after his death (1840) does not mention the skeleton: this probably indicates that the cupboard was closed at that time. The initial view of the Trustees that the skeleton was 'unsuitable' for the Museum tends to indicate that it was not on general display.

From c.1994 to 2013 the door to the cupboard was open, enabling visitors to view the skeleton. Since 2013 the door to the cupboard has been kept closed and locked in accordance with the research outlined above and our policy on the display of human remains.

Provenance help-art-provenance

Acquired from the collection of the sculptor John Flaxman in 1836.


Martin Kemp and Marina Wallace, Spectacular Bodies: the Art and Science Of the Human Body, Hayward Gallery (exhibition catalogue), 2001

Exhibition history

The Artist's Model: Its Role in British Art from Lely to Etty, Djanogly Art Gallery, Nottingham, 30 April 1991 - 31 May 1991; Kenwood House, London, 19 June - 31 August 1991
Spectacular Bodies: The Art and Science of the Human Body from Leonardo to Now, Hayward Gallery, London, 19 October 2000 - 14 January 2001

Associated items

O2051, related material

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