Captain Moonlight: Art and science in the same pickle

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AS I WAS saying, tricky business, Art. Yes, I'm going on again about that dead sheep of Damien Hirst's, the one in the formaldehyde in the tank in the Serpentine Gallery in Kensington Gardens.

But today I want to pay tribute to Damien's great forerunner, John Hunter, whose work is in the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons. Hunter (1728-1793) is primarily regarded as the Father of Scientific Surgery, but he was also an inspired preserver of dead animals, as my picture of his rhesus monkey shows. Rather more striking than the sheep, I should say.

There are more than 6,000 specimens in the Hunterian, including around 3,500 examples of Hunter's works, preserved in alcohol and splendidly displayed. There are heads of geese, cuttlefish and a vulture, tongues of flamingo and woodpecker, the stomach of a crocodile, various human foetuses and six house sparrows killed on various dates between June and May to show the progressive enlargement of the testes as spring advances. There are also three paintings by Stubbs, commissioned by Hunter, including a wonderful study of a rhinoceros. Actually, I rather preferred them to the monkey.

The Hunterian is not open to the public, although, interestingly, it has long been visited by art students on specially arranged tours. Sir Reginald Murley, former president of the RCS and chairman of the Hunterian trustees, who kindly allowed me to visit, thinks Damien's sheep is 'ghastly'. He also warns that if the sheep's insides have not been taken care of properly, dire things could ensue, citing the famous case of Nelson's body, which began to bubble in the brandy cask on its way back to England after Trafalgar (not that this stopped a large amount of the brandy from being drunk, apparently). I am assured that Damien has done it all by the book; but I have also to tell you that a recent visitor spotted lots of bubbles in the wool. Stand well back is my advice.

(Photograph omitted)