Written in the bones

Human skeleton, Wellcome Library

I’ve never really been a sugar and spice sort of girl. Snails and puppydog tails have always held more appeal. That may explain part of my fascination for places like the Wellcome Collection, with their weird and wonderful collection of objects, and the Old Operating Theatre, with its atmospheric herb garrett and chilling theatre.

I’ve discovered a few new favourite things, which may well lead you to believe I’m just a bit ghoulish. I like to think it’s more about curiosity, a desire to look beneath the surface, see how things work and get down to the essentials of life (and death).

Skeletons, then. There are plenty (mostly inhuman), many beautifully mounted and presented, at the Little Shop of Horrors in Bethnal Green, one of my new favourite places to go. The shop, tiny from the outside, expands backwards and downwards into corridors crowded with curiosities. They’re currently exhibiting an incredible bestiary of stuffed and skeletal animals, from an enormous and rather beautiful polar bear to a fascinating full-grown lion skeleton. I was entranced by a delicate bat skeleton, showing the elegant long ‘fingers’ of the creature, folded as carefully as the struts of a silk umbrella.

I’m more attracted to the skeletons than the taxidermy. Dead fur and feathers always seems a bit dusty, a bit inclined to mites and mice and other things nibbling away. Skeletons, though – pure, hard, elegant – hold a different appeal.

One of the most affecting exhibitions I’ve ever seen was London’s Buried Bones, at (of course) the Wellcome, back in 2008. The history of London, written into the calcium deposits of its citizens. Our bones, and where we choose to lay them to rest, say so much about us.

Skeletons and skulls, of course, hold a big place in art. In a recent evening event at Dulwich Picture Gallery (another all-time favourite place), director Ian Dejardin drew our attention to a gloriously painted skull in one of the gallery’s Dutch masters, which I’d never noticed before. The skull, creamy and smooth, was offset by rich black silk, fine white lace and the glossy curls of the simpering dandy in the portrait. Nominally a memento mori, this skull appeared to me more of a chic accessory, closer to Damien Hirst’s bling-covered diamond skull, or the black wax skull candles I saw in a shop in Covent Garden yesterday.

So is this obsession with bones a mere pose, a more morbid version of Oscar Wilde’s obsession with blue and white china? I admit, I’d love to have a nicely-cleaned skull on display at home (Damien can keep the diamonds), although I might worry a little about the provenance. For me, there’s something perversely comforting about the thought that, when you strip everything else away, what endures are our mineral deposits.

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