Prince's sculptor casts from corpses

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The Independent Online
THE sculpture tutor of the Prince of Wales's Institute of Architecture has been smuggling pieces of human corpses into his studio and using them to make plaster casts, which will go on display in a London art show this week.

The artist, Anthony-Noel Kelly, a former butcher and abattoir worker, says he acquired the remains through medical schools and, after casting them in his studios, disposed of them.

"To get them was a sweat, under cover of darkness," he said. "I had the police on me once because someone had tipped them off. I still had some body pieces I hadn't yet used, and I had to destroy them."

A silver-coated head and shoulders of an old man, with part of the brain cut away, and a gold "triptych" of three sections of the face of a second elderly person, will be exhibited at the Contemporary Arts Fair at Islington's Business Design Centre. The old man's head has a price tag of pounds 4,500.

Mr Kelly says his aim is to challenge notions that health and life are the prerequisites of beauty. His gold and silver gilding, he feels, immortalises the dead.

"I have no qualms about doing this work. I would not wish to hurt anyone," he said. "While I find beauty in death, these are nevertheless rotting bodies. You look at them and remind yourself, this is how we all end up.

"I am a little bit worried about the old man, though, in case someone recognises him."

This is not the first time that Mr Kelly, 41, has taken his artistic inspiration from the medical world. He has worked producing drawings for doctors engaged in cancer research, and has watched operations being performed.

"When they open someone up, it is just amazing! You see the heart and there is this pulsating beat!" he said.

Watching operations - as the Prince of Wales's ex-wife has discovered - may inspire disdain, but it is not illegal. But removing parts of bodies used in medical schools' dissection classes and not giving them a proper burial is an offence.

The days of Burke and Hare, when medical schools had to acquire corpses by illicit means, are long gone, and the use of human remains to train doctors is nowadays strictly governed by regulations.

Under the terms of the Anatomy Act 1994, the bulk of remains can be kept for only three years and must then be given a proper burial, although some parts may be retained indefinitely as specimens.

Many medical schools keep containers with the dissected body so that any parts cut away during a dissection - be they limbs or organs - can be placed in a coffin with the rest of the corpse and then buried or cremated.

Mr Kelly's activities were condemned yesterday by the past president of the British Institute of Funeral Directors, Mr Alan Puxley, who also runs the Salisbury School of Funeral Directing and Embalming. He said: "As an institute we would abhor such an exercise and would want all bodies to be treated with respect. I would be very concerned about what this man has done, and why a medical school had let this happen. Most are extremely respectful in their treatment of the bodies they use."

Mr Kelly, who has worked with dozens of pieces of bodies, insists he too is respectful. "I am in awe of life and death. I have a tremendous respect for the human body". But he refuses to say from which schools he has obtained parts of corpses.

After training as a painter, Mr Kelly then spent two years studying sculpture, which he now teaches two days a week at the Prince of Wales Institute of Architecture.

The institute, which the Prince founded five years ago, has been in turmoil for many months after it was refused academic approval and given two years to improve its courses.

In December the Prince dismissed its entire governing council. Its new director, Richard Hodges, who ran the British School in Rome, has promised to change the school's approach.

Mr Kelly admitted that when he showed some students slides of his work they were "horrified".

The sculptor's work with the body is a lengthy process, which begins with the moulding of rubber next to the embalmed figure's skin, then glass fibre, before pouring on the plaster to set around the shape.

In Mr Kelly's icy Clapham studio, the plaster "torsos" of elderly people are hanging. The casts are such faithful reproductions of the human form that every wrinkle of skin is visible. After embalming, which always takes place before dissection, the body becomes flatter, more solid, and less supple, and marks from the table on which one body had been placed are noticeable on the cast.

Also hanging from a wall are what appear at first glance to be gold logs, but are gilded human "hams", with the internal vessels of the legs on display.

Mr Kelly himself appears to have no horror of death or of the dead. While the cadavers with which he works were embalmed long ago, Mr Kelly also made a death mask of his grandmother, together with a cast of her hands, half an hour after her demise.

His more recent work involves making casts of horses, and a row of their plaster legs, complete with hooves, hang from hooks in his living-room, as if in homage to the trade of butchery he once plied.