A Surgical Artist at War: the Paintings and Sketches of Sir Charles Bell 1809 – 1815
Crumplin, M.K.H. and P. Starling. A Surgical Artist at War: the Paintings and Sketches of Sir Charles Bell 1809 – 1815. Edinburg: Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, 2005. 96 pages. 60 images. £15 ISBN#: 095462131X
When the Sir John Moore’s shattered army returned to England in 1809 after its disastrous retreat to Corunna, the British military establishment was incapable of dealing with the large number of sick and wounded – estimated to be over 5,000. A call went out for civilian doctors to come to Portsmouth to help treat the soldiers. One of those who responded was Sir Charles Bell, a Scottish surgeon who made his living drawing images for medical texts, when he was not performing surgery. In addition to being a talented artist and surgeon, he was also an anatomist who discovered the VII nerve, which if damaged will cause facial paralysis – or Bell’s palsy – which is named after him. During his spare time in Portsmouth, Bell made black and white etchings of the wounded, at a later time he would make water color paintings from his drawings. In 1815, when word reached London of Waterloo, Charles Bell once again volunteered to go and help treat the wounded. When he was not helping the wounded, he was making sketches.
A Surgical Artist at War is divided into two parts. The first covers 15 paintings of wounded from Corunna in 1809, while the second section covers the Waterloo wounded. In addition to the sketches, Charles Bell also left notes about each painting describing what it is. For the Corunna paintings, the patients are anonymous and there are notes only about the wound that is shown. However for the Waterloo images, his notes are more extensive and often he provides the name of the soldier. Mr. Crumplin and Mr. Starling do an excellent job of analyzing and explaining Charles Bell’s paintings and even do a critique of his surgical abilities.
There are 15 paintings in the Corunna section. They are:
Bell drew 45 images in his sketchbook and the authors provide 17 of them:
It should be noted that the Bell paintings are of wounds that are two weeks old or older. They are of the soldiers who were wounded and made it to a hospital. Many are of amputations and he shows them head on – the reader will be looking into a gaping wound – seeing the damage to the tissue and the bones. As gruesome as these paintings are, most are of the fortunate soldiers who survived their wounds – but some are of soldiers who would soon die from their wound.
A picture is worth a thousand words. Charles Bell’s paintings are the closest things we will ever have to contemporary photographs of the wounded of a Napoleonic battle. His paintings were meant to educate other medical professionals and thus are quite graphic. I strongly recommend it for all readers. Bell’s pictures show the cost of a battle in terms of human suffering. However, it is not for those who can not tolerate detailed images of mangled bodies.
On a personal note, in the summer of 2007, I spent many hours at Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington, D.C., visiting a severely wounded soldier from my son’s unit in Iraq. Visiting him was the toughest thing I had ever done. It brought the Iraq War home to me unlike any newspaper report could have. These images had a similar effect on me. It personalized Waterloo.
Reviewed by Robert Burnham
Placed on the Napoleon Series: July 2008
 Kincaid, John. Adventures in the Rifle Brigade and Random Shots from a Rifleman. Glasgow: Richard Drew, 1981. P. 285