An extraordinary silhouette of a ground-breaking doctor of orthopedics cut by the master silhouettist, Augustin Edouart. Robert Chessher (1750-1831) was born in the market town of Hinckley, in the southern part of Leicestershire. His father died when he was young and his mother married a surgeon as her second husband. Chessher apprenticed with his step-father and began improving known methods of stabilizing and supporting fractured limbs. After further study and a stint in general medical practice, Chessher narrowed his practice to the treatment of curvature of the spine and deformities of the limbs. Hinckley became “a mecca” for patients with such ailments and it is said that at one time, Chessher was treating 200 patients at once. He employed 7 or 8 in-house craftspeople to make all of the medical apparatuses on a custom basis. Chessher is noted for two important orthopedic apparatuses: (1) a double-inclined splint for treatment of fractured tibias, and (2) Chessher’s Collar for treatment of scoliosis by stretching while at the same time supporting the spine. A published description of Chessher’s Collar said, “The patient is drawn up by a cord over pullies, previously to the application of the instrument.... The objects generally proposed to be attained by the application of such machines are ... to stretch the spine when it is curved; to keep it stretched; and finally, to remove the cause or source of the distortion.” Shaw, John, Engravings illustrative of a work on the nature and treatment of the distortions to which the spine and the bones of the chest are subject, Longman and Company, London, 1824. Chessher was both lauded and disavowed by his contemporaries in the field. Some said that patients’ spines were actually shortened by several inches after years of treatment with the Collar. Whether or not Chessher’s treatment was helpful in the treatment of scoliosis, it is a method that was emulated and built upon for generations to come.
Edouart’s brilliant silhouette shows Dr. Chessher with a patient on a watercolor outdoor background that shows a village in the background (almost certainly Hinckley). Chessher reads from a group of papers that show evidence of having been folded into thirds—perhaps a multi-page letter. His patient stands several inches shorter than the good doctor and wears the very recognizable Chessher’s Collar. I’ve included a copy of Dr. Shaw’s engraving of the Chessher Collar so that you can compare Edouart’s cutting with the rival doctor’s depiction of the contraption. We can just make out the chin strap holding the patient’s head high. One difference between the Collar of the silhouette and the engraving is that the engraving shows the topmost part of the apparatus standing closer to the top of the patient’s head than the one depicted in the silhouette. The engraving was published 4 years before Edouart cut the silhouette so one must wonder whether Chessher made some adjustment to the design during those 4 years; whether the distance from the top of the head was part of the customization for each patient; or whether either Edouart or Dr. Shaw took some license in their depictions. Also, I am puzzled about the cause of the great height difference between Dr. Chessher and his patient. Was the patient’s height a result of his specific condition? Also note that there is a brace that runs under patient’s backmost shoe which also appears to be less stylish than his foremost shoe. Does this indicate that his condition was not confined to a curved spine? Another possibility is that, as noted by the accounts of some of Dr. Chessher’s contemporaries, perhaps the patient’s height was actually reduced by his treatment—although he seems to be smaller than Dr. Chessher in more than just height (i.e., the patient’s head is much smaller although both gentlemen’s heads are proportionally correct for their bodies). I have not found any accounts indicating that Chessher was an overly tall man. All of these questions make this silhouette fascinating to me!
Edouart inscribed the silhouette “Dr. Chefsher / Hinckley” at about 6 o’clock just above the painted flowers at the edge of the walkway. In the lower left corner, the silhouette is signed “Augn. Edouart fecit / 1828”. Part of the date is covered by the frame liner. The sepia watercolor background is nicely balanced with foliage, the village shown in the far background and exterior steps with curved iron railings and bulbous newel posts. Dr. Chessher wears rather old-fashioned clothing for the time the silhouette was cut in 1828. Chessher would have been 78 years old when he stood for his silhouette and it was not (and still is not) unusual for elderly people to cling to fashions from their past. There are some glue stains around the face and within the open collar which indicate that Edouart moved the figure ever so slightly when he pasted it down. There is a small stain at the back of the patient’s head which makes his hair look a bit more tossed than the cutting actually depicts (and the cutting shows off his tousled hair wonderfully). The background has all-over toning and a few light spots. Framed in a highly-figured bird’s eye maple frame with a gilt liner. Framed size is 13 3/8” x 9 3/8”. This is a really special silhouette by the great master during his second year as a professional silhouette artist.
Valentin, Bruno, M.D. “Robert Chessher (1750–1831): An English Pioneer in Orthopaedics”, Medical History, vol. 2(4) 1958. 308-313.
Please see the Silhouettist Bios page for more information about Augustin Edouart.