Calves' Heads and Brains or a Phrenological Lecture


A phrenologist lectures to a seated audience. The writing below the print identifies the phrenologist as James De Ville; however, M. George posits that the phrenologist is George Combe (George 606). He holds a wig in his right hand and gestures to the audience with his left. The phrenologist's head has several bumps, echoing and surpassing the shapes of the phrenological casts scattered around the room. Note especially the sharp contrast between the prominent bumps on the phrenologist’s skull and the idealized plaster cast of De Ville displayed in the lower center of the image. Also noteworthy among the casts are busts of Gall, Spurzheim, and Shakespeare. Other casts portray organs and mock-organs instead of historical figures: “gazing faculty,” “slyness,” “pride,” “sleepiness,” and “consequence.” A skull labeled “Thurtell” can also be seen in the lower left corner. Posters cover the wall: one advertises hats; another puns on "bumps"; others illustrate mock-phrenological characteristics such as "abstraction" and "suspicion." The bookshelf behind the phrenologist contains works by Lavater, Moore, Combe, and Aristotle, as well as treatises on "Self Knowledge," "Bells Brain," "Gold Making," "Magic," and the "Philosopher's Stone." Members of the audience alternately watch De Ville and each other. One man holds a skull, several others feel their heads.

Calves’ Heads can also be divided between the left half of the image, from which the phrenologist and the phrenological casts gaze at the audience, and the right half of the image, from which the audience’s gaze is dispersed between the phrenologist, his props, the other audience members, and each audience member's own body. This contrast also associates phrenology with sculpture and literature (with such various sources in mind as Aristotle and “Lectures on Nothing”) and the audience with posters, politics, and the crowd. It is noteworthy here that the pseudo-phrenological characteristics associated with the left side of the image are the “gazing faculty,” “slyness,” and “pride,” while the right side of the image shows “consequence,” “prying,” and “suspicion.”

Primary Works: 

Phrenology, or, The Doctrine of the Mind (1825)

Accession Number: 


Edition and State: 


Printing Context: 

Printed for artist

Associated People: 

Franz Joseph Gall (1758-1828)

Franz Joseph Gall was a German scientist who argued for a localization of activity within the brain. Gall identified twenty-seven different brain functions, each controlled by a different organ within the brain. The measuring of these organs allowed an individual to be "read" scientifically; furthermore, Gall's belief that an individual's character was decided by the size of the brain's organs provided a scientific, rather than religious, explanation for human behavior (Cowling 41-2; McLaren 87ff).

Johann Kaspar Spurzheim (1776-1832)

Originally serving as Gall's assistant, Spurzheim was greatly influential in popularizing phrenology. Spurzheim lectured in Britain, increasing Gall's twenty-seven organs to thirty-three and stressing the practical applications of phrenology (Cowling 41-2; McLaren 87ff). Spurzheim lectured in London in 1826. As The Phrenological Journal reports:
Dr. Spurzheim arrived in London in the end of January, and is occupied in bringing out additional publications, and lecturing. He is now delivering lectures in the London Institution: his auditors are so numerous, that there is not room enough on the benches to sit, at least a hundred persons are occasionally standing; and among them are many who would hesitate to attend his private courses . . . Dr. S., in lecturing in the Institution, greatly extends a knowledge of the science . . . The newspapers, in reporting Dr. S’s lectures, no longer disgrace themselves by paltry jokes, but treat the subject as a science. (Phrenological Journal 3: 324)

George Combe (1788-1858)

George Combe was one of the earliest advocates of phrenology in the UK; he initiated both the Edinburgh Phrenological Society and its journal, the Phrenological Journal and Miscellany. Combe published several phrenological tracts on the philosophical and scientific backgrounds of phrenology and on its use in education, criminal investigation and correction, and theology (Spencer 292). Combe’s books were sold widely in the United States; he also lectured in the United States from 1838 to 1840 (“Advertisement” 76; “Article VI” 187).

James De Ville (1777-1846)

James De Ville was a "professor of Phrenology” and an author of phrenological texts, with a consulting room in the Strand (R. H., “Phrenology” 82; Patten, George Cruikshank's Life 285). De Ville was an officer of the London Phrenological Society and frequently spoke at the society’s meetings (Phrenological Journal 259 and 262). One contemporary article describes De Ville’s lectures as follows: “Mr. De Ville began with an explanation of the first principles of the science, and, excepting bad grammar, bad pronunciation, and cockneyism, he succeeded pretty well” (R. H., “Phrenology” 82).

De Ville was widely known for creating phrenological casts which exemplified the prominence of portions of the skull associated with individuality, philoprogenitiveness, inhabitiveness, and other phrenological “organs” (Phrenological Journal 3: 262ff; A. H. “Letter.” 217). These casts were displayed in his consulting room as a “gallery” of phrenological types, a “numerous collection of desperately ugly specimens” (“Phrenology," The Literary Gazette 599). Many children were brought to De Ville’s consulting room in order that he might “ascertain [their possible] development” in various areas of education (R. H. “Phrenology” 82; Phrenological Journal3: 266).

John Thurtell (1794-1824)

John Thurtell's violent murder of William Weare in October, 1823 was sensationalized by crime journalism, ballads, plays, artists and authors. After Thurtell's death and subsequent dissection in London, parts of his body were stolen as memorabilia and his life story was used by reformers as an example of moral decline (Fraser). Phrenologists were especially interested in examining Thurtell’s head during the dissection, as is shown by both the print above and contemporary news articles:
The hair having been removed, the head [of Thurtell] appeared exceedingly well formed, and the want of expansion of the forehead was less remarkable than in life . . . Among those who were most anxious in their attendance, to examine the body . . . were a class of people called phrenologists, who were all a-gog to find a very common prominence behind and above the ear, which they are pleased to call ‘the organ of destructiveness,’ or murder. Most unfortunately for the cultivators of this science, it happens that the said bump or prominence is not to be found in the head of what was Thurtell; in other words, that the organ of destructiveness was not at all prominent or developed. (“Further Particulars of Thurtell, &c.” )


The expansive labeling of phrenological items in this print evokes the large public debate regarding the usefulness of phrenology occurring in the first half of the nineteenth century. This image also features a large amount of casts; like the mapped head, the phrenological cast was associated with phrenology from its earliest publications throughout the nineteenth century. The Phrenological Journal and multiple periodicals identify James De Ville as extremely involved in both the collection and display of such casts (Phrenological Journal 262ff). Finally, social caricatures such as Calves’ Heads and Brains (1826) complicate the phrenological gaze by associating the “gazing faculty” with suspicion, deception, education, and commercialism.


Satirical caricatures of the phrenological lecture both poked fun at the pseudo-science's claim to an infallible "reading" of the subject and revealed the extent of its popularity. The expansive labeling of phrenological items in this image also evokes the large public debate regarding the usefulness of phrenology occurring in the first half of the nineteenth century. By placing the skull of John Thurtell on the floor of the image, the caricaturist records the public’s interest in using phrenology to identify criminals, an interest also documented in news articles and phrenological tracts like The Phrenological Journal (“Further Particulars of Thurtell, &c.”; Phrenological Journal 297ff). The application of phrenology to a photographic archive of criminals is well documented by Allen Sekula (11ff).

The contrast between the phrenologist’s—perhaps De Ville’s—bumpy skull and the idealized cast of De Ville echo the use of key historical figures as types in phrenological writing: Combe, for example, compares the large “animal organs” and small “organs of the moral sentiments and intellect” of Pope Alexander VI (15th C) to the large “organs of the moral sentiments and intellect” of Philipp Melancthon (16th C).  In doing so, he seeks to contrast the former’s disposition towards "animal indulgence” and tendency “to seek gratification in the directest way” with the latter’s exemplary role as a “great and virtuous reformer” (Combe 30).

A poster advertising “phrenological hats adapted to every protuberance of faculty or organ” reminds the viewer that phrenological lectures, such as those given by De Ville, were commercial as well as educational enterprises. Finally, the label provided for the image—the conclusion to the lecture—calls into question the truth behind phrenology’s claims. The caricaturist’s phrenologist ends his lecture by claiming that, “on the craniums of this highly gifted and scientific audience the organ of implicit faith under evident contradictions, stands beautifully develop'd to a surprising and prominent degree.”


Social caricature satirized popular trends not simply in order to entertain but also to inform or alter public opinion. Caricatures of phrenology taught the “clinical gaze” by illustrating the pseudo-science’s usefulness (or lack thereof) in the interpretation of human appearance and—because the exterior or visible was here equated with the interior or unknown—in the reading of human character ( Foucault 103ff).


"Advertisement 2 -- no Title." Christian Register and Boston Observer (1835-1843) May 13 1843: 76. ProQuest. Web. 1 May. 2009.

“Article VI.” American Phrenological Journal. (1841): 185-9. Print.

Combe, George. Outlines of Phrenology. 5th ed. London: Longman & Co., 1835. Print.

Cowling, Mary. The Artist as Anthropologist: The Representation of Type and Character in Victorian Art. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989. Print.

Foucault, Michel. The Birth of the Clinic. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Routledge, 2003. Print.

Fraser, Angus. “Thurtell, John (1794–1824).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Ed. H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison. Oxford: OUP, 2004. Web. 30 Apr. 2009.

“Further Particulars of Thurtell, &c.” Examiner 18 Jan. 1824: 40-41. Print.

George, M. Dorothy. Catalogue of Political and Personal Satires Preserved in the Department of Prints and Drawings in the British Museum. Vol. 10. London: Oxford UP, 1952. Print.

H., A. “Letter.” The Gentleman’s Magazine Sept. 1825: 216-7. Print.

H., R. “Phrenology.” Republican 14.3 (1826): 82-6. Print.

Karp, Diane. "Madness, Mania, Melancholy: The Artist as Observer." Philadelphia Museum of Art Bulletin 80.342 (1984): 1-24. Print.

McLaren, Angus. "Phrenology: Medium and Message." The Journal of Modern History 46.1 (1974): 86-97. Print.

Patten, Robert. "Conventions of Georgian Caricature." Art Journal 43.4 (1983): 331-8. Print.

Patten, Robert. George Cruikshank's Life, Times, and Art: 1792-1835. Vol. 1. Rutgers UP, 1992. Print.

The Phrenological Journal and Miscellany Vol. 3. (August, 1825 – October, 1826): Edinburgh, 1826. Print.

“Phrenology.” Literary Gazette Sept. 1829: 599.

Sekula, Allen. “The Body and the Archive.” October 39 (1986): 3-64. Print.

Spencer, Frank. History of Physical Anthropology. New York: Garland Pub., 1997. Print.

Stafford, Barbara Maria. Body Criticism: Imagining the Unseen in Enlightenment Art and Medicine. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991. Print.

Stafford, Barbara Maria. "From 'Brilliant Ideas' to 'Fitful Thoughts': Conjecturing the Unseen in Late Eighteenth-Century Art." Zeitschrift fur Kunstgeschichte 48.3 (1985): 329-63. Print.

Long Title: 

CONCLUDING ADDRESS, Ladies and Gentlemen, Having thus concluded the hundred and thirty ninth article, under the Head or Section of Propensities: I shall take my leave until the next lecture, by clearly elucidating in my own person an instance of Due Proportion of Faculties: Talkativeness with Gulling, standing First: and further beg to testify, beyond all doubt, or shadow of contradiction, that on the Craniums of this highly gifted and scientific Audience the Organ of Implicit faith Under Evident Contradictions, Stands beautifully develop'd to a Surprising and Prominent degree Dear Ladies, Worthy Gentlemen; adieu.



Image Date: 

September 1826

Creation Technique: 

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