Romantic Circles Gallery
The Organs of the Senses Familiarly Described, Plate 17
This image, Plate 17 of Bell's illustrations, depicts the three small bones of the ear. Bell describes it as such:
The natural size of these bones is shown in Fig. 1 Plate 17, (the orbicular bone being less than a mustard seed), and a magnified view,with their mode of union, in Figure 2. In the latter figure, a, is the hammer; b, its handle, c, the end attached to the membrane of the tympanum, d, the long process, e, the anvil, f, the orbicular bone, g, the head of the stirrup, and h, its base attached to the membrane of the oval hole.Another helpful text, from Chambers's Edinburgh Journal, is given below, demonstrating what was known about the ear at the time:
The impressions received from the air by the outer membrane of the cavity, are conveyed by a set of small bones to the inner, or opposite, membrane, which is called the membrane of the fendstra ovalis, or oval window, from its covering a hole in the bone leading into the deeper seated parts of the ear… the chain of bones, which convey vibrations from one side of the cavity to the other, amounts to three in number. These are all small, and the least of them is no larger than a millet-seed. ("The Ear" 411)
Department of Special Collections, Memorial Library, University of Wisconsin-Madison
RE26 O6 B45 074
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ProvenanceCharles Bell’s work, The Organs of the Senses Familiarly Described, contains twenty colored plates. In addition, Bell includes eighty-five pages of descriptive text. The text was made available by Harvey and Co., Gracechurch Street, sometime in the 1830s.
No exhibition history identified.
Parts DescriptionPlate 17 of the original twenty plates in Bell's The Organs of the Senses Familiarly Described.
Printing ContextThese plates, each of which depicts a different part of the ear, appear as illustrations in Bell’s text. We can assume the plates are like those encountered by surgical students in Bell's lectures on the structure and function of the ear.
Associated EventsIn 1828, Bell accepted the Professorship of Physiology and Surgery at the newly opened University of London (Gordon-Taylor). Even after the college incorporated the Middlesex Hospital School and Bell was able to practice surgery there in 1835, his alma mater, Edinburgh, wooed him back to be Chair of Surgery. The estimated publication date of this text makes it likely that the text was written during his time at one of these two schools, which may indicate that the text was either a reference book for beginning medical students in anatomy or an informal way of introducing anatomy to the public. Bell was interested in producing texts that were useful to both scientists and artists. One of his better known texts, Anatomy of Expression, was “justly a favorite of students of anatomy and students of drawing”: in this text, Bell analyzed drawings by Hogarth and others through “the aid of anatomical science, and [demonstrated] how precisely true to nature are the highest delineations of genius” (F. A. 92). It is likely that his own experience and facility with drawing influenced this desire to combine science with art. As an additional influence, however, there was at the time an ongoing discussion concerned with the possible ways in which anatomy influenced human expressions. This conversation, connected to the Romantic fascination with physiognomy, contributed to painters’ and artists’ ability to convey emotion through anatomical verisimillitude and a burgeoning understanding of the function of the muscles and nerves in the face itself (Delaporte).
Associated PlacesUniversity of London. Middlesex Hospital School. Edinburgh.
Associated TextsThe Organs of the Senses Familiarly Described (1803)
SubjectThe series of plates given in this gallery depicts the ear and how it works. In this image, the third plate of the series, we are shown the three small bones of the ear.
ThemeThe senses. Organs of sense. Processing the world around us. Man and the body.
SignificanceBell’s understanding of the ear and the specificity and function of the bundling of different types of nerves (such as auditory nerves) significantly increased scientists’ ability to study acoustics and sound theory in the early nineteenth century. As he noted to his brother, “I consider the organs of the outward senses as forming a distinct class of nerves from the other. I trace them to corresponding parts of the brain totally distinct from the origins of the other” (F. A. 95).
By providing a more explicit account of how nerves connected to the senses—such as the aural—worked, he reduced some of the mystery surrounding the hearing process. Bell’s illustrations dovetail with his text in a way that aligns the visual and the aural: what he describes, we see, even though he is attempting to explain the ineffable process of making sense of sound. Though Romantic culture seemed to give primacy to the sense of sight, this did not necessarily result in the primacy of what was visible; the fascination with the visible carried with it a silent twin, the lure of the invisible. Acts such as looking at ruins or allegorical portraits required moments of memory and reflection—a tracing of what was visible in an invisible realm. Sophie Thomas notes:
. . . an important part of this history . . . is related to how visual and literary culture in the period engages with what is inherently imaginative, and with what borders on the invisible. And more pointedly, with how the epistemology of the invisible functions as a secret counterpart to the visible, structuring it, conditioning it, even doubling it. (7)Part of the allure of Romantic spectacles such as the phantasmagoria was created by the trappings of illusion and the accompanying uncertainty about what was seen and how it was being seen. Bell participates in this work—which both elevates and unsettles the trustworthiness of the eye—by seeking to lay bare the underlying mechanisms that make hearing possible: to bring the invisible interior to light, and to make it visible, even though sound itself was ephemeral and fleeting. Work like Bell’s strengthened parallels that were frequently drawn between the functions of eye and ear, such as the comparison between spectacles and ear trumpets. In addition, since scientists and philosophers in the Romantic period were just as invested in the way the observer experienced phenomena as they were in the causes and effects of the phenomena themselves, Bell’s text provides an accurate and concise sketch of how the aural senses of the observing body were perceived.
BibliographyBell, Charles. The Organs of the Senses Familiarly Described. London: Harvey and Co., 1803. Print.
DeLaporte, Francis. Anatomy of the Passions. Stanford UP, 2008. Print.
F. A., "Sir Charles Bell." Fraser's Magazine Jan. 1875: 88-100. Print.
Gordon-Taylor, Gordon. Sir Charles Bell: His Life and Times. Edinburgh: E. & S. Livingstone Ltd., 1958. Print.
Sterne, Jonathan. The Audible Past. Durham: Duke UP. 2003. Print.
"The Ear." Chambers's Edinburgh Journal Jan. 1837: 410-411. Print.
Thomas, Sophie. Romanticism and Visuality. New York: Routledge, 2008. Print.
Long TitlePlate 17: Natural size of these bones. A colored plate. Aquatint.