art travelling: welcome to the horror show

“Frightening isn’t it?” remarks the stranger standing next to me. I follow her gaze. Oh yes, she’s right, it’s terrifying. But it’s undeniably beautiful. Two slender, velvet lined metal wings rise up from a filigreed base, graceful and almost insubstantial. It casts a delicate shadow on the red fabric of the display case. Looks like a piece of modernist sculpture, but it isn’t. It’s a chastity belt, complete with keyholes. Nasty. Indeed, it’s not the only horror in this collection: there are forceps like shovels; an impossibly narrow metal corset; brutal spiky rings to fit around the penis, meant to prevent masturbation; and most horrible of all, tiny gorgeously-embroidered Chinese boots for broken, bound feet. What on earth were our ancestors thinking?

This bizarre collection is part of a hoard of medical curiosities collected by Anglo-American pharmaceutical tycoon and philanthropist Henry Wellcome, a late Victorian gent with a colourful story. His wunderkammer is now on display – alongside many other fascinating exhibits – at the Wellcome collection on Euston Road.

Here, in the blandly named Gallery 2, is a slice of Jeremy Bentham’s skin, a large painting of a smiling disemboweled woman, weird anatomical models, a trepanned skull. It is not all horrid; you can also see more prosaic items such as Charles Darwin’s skull-topped walking stick, a clump of George III’s hair and Napoleon Bonaparte’s toothbrush. There doesn’t seem to be an awful lot of logic to Wellcome’s collecting; he seems to have greedily swept up every oddity he could find. But the curators have done a great job in trying to organize the motley assemblage into categories such as Death (including a mummy), Sex and Childbirth (neither seem very appealing here), Personal Adornment (also quite distressing), Shamanic Medicine and so on. But I’m not sure many people come here to learn; we were all simply gawking at the bizarreness of it all.

My favourite thing, the pièce de résistance, is a huge oil painting dating from the 16th century, which depicts an Italian version of hell as envisioned by Hieronymus Bosch. It’s all there: demons, fires and people trapped in eggs. All very horrid. Love it.

Hell is Two people trapped in an Egg with a large Owl sitting on their heads. Detail from An Angel Leading a Soul into Hell; Italian homage to Hieronymous Bosch, c.1516
Trepanned Skull, Jericho 2200-2000BCE Wellcome Collection Gallery 2

The Wellcome Collection

183 Euston Rd, Kings Cross, London NW1 2BE

Admission free. Closed Mondays