Theories and Methods: Literature, Science and Medicine
Daniel Lambert: The Body as an Object
The object, or rather objects, that fascinated me the most throughout the event were the two paintings of Daniel Lambert. Lambert died in 1809 weighing between fifty-two to fifty-six stone, depending on which report is consulted, despite claiming to only drink water and consume very little food. The first painting of Lambert is on display at the Wellcome and portrays him at forty stone,
whereas the representation of Lambert that hangs in the Hunterian is of a man of even huger proportions; he is an absolute mountain of a man. These depictions are absolutely focused upon his body because in both paintings the artists have chosen to situate Lambert’s colossal bulk so that both images fill the canvas, with his immense flesh appearing to seep out towards the edge of the gilt frames.
Benjamin Marshall, c. 1806
The different paintings also signify both the flexibility and the limitations of interpretation that the body is subject to. When someone becomes the object of a painting the multiplicity of potential readings of their body is confined to the way that the painter chooses to present them, but at the same time it encourages a variety of alternative readings in the various spectators of the piece. So, even though both depictions of Lambert are arguably similar with their focus on his immense corpulence, this fixed portrayal of his body is still able to produce a multiplicity of readings that are dependant upon the viewer’s own unique cultural position.
At the Wellcome there was a discussion that centred on the pharmacy doors and the images of the four men that were painted on them. It was pointed out to us by William Schupbach that the paintings form only part of the object, and the doors as an object in themselves have a provenance and a history of their own. But it is the object as the representation of the man that is important to me, and my tendency towards this method of perception became very apparent when my group’s task was to interpret a section of someone’s skull. While many different readings were placed upon it by others, it appears that I cannot divorce the object, when it is either part of or representative of the man, from the man itself.
Although I consider Shupbach’s point to be relevant and valid, it still remains that what is most pertinent to my studies is the fact that Lambert’s body is not just an image on a canvas, but that his body is actually an object in itself. Lambert participated in this ‘objectifying’ of his own body as when he was alive he would exhibit himself at freak shows and therefore arguably actively reduced himself to nothing more than just a body. His body becomes the object and as it was his body that was exhibited, the question remains whether this serves to divorce that body from the living man. This idea of the body as just a body, as an object in itself, is one that I would like to explore in my thesis; I find this concept both fascinating and confusing, because in the same way that I seem to be unable to separate the image of the man from the man himself, I equally struggle to separate the body from the man.