sat 22/10/2016

Art Gallery: The Wellcome's Dirt - The Filthy Reality of Everyday Life | Visual arts reviews, news & interviews

Art Gallery: The Wellcome's Dirt - The Filthy Reality of Everyday Life

A fascinating pictorial tour through our mucky, disease-ridden past

'Monster Soup, commonly called Thames Water' imagines what pestilent creatures may be found in the Thames
'Monster Soup, commonly called Thames Water' imagines what pestilent creatures may be found in the Thamesetching by William Heath, 1828. Credit: Wellcome Collection, London

There have been exhibitions, indeed even a whole museum, dedicated to cleanliness: the Deutsches Hygiene Museum in Dresden, for instance (image 9), which was founded for the purpose of public education in hygiene and health, but which later embraced and diffused racist theories during the Nazi era. Yet there haven’t been many – or any, as far as I’m aware – devoted entirely to dirt. It’s all around us, yet historically we seem to have considered the subject unworthy of serious cultural examination. And the reasons for avoidance are just as interesting as the filthy matter currently under the microscope at the Wellcome Collection (see theartsdesk's review).

Obviously, it’s a messy subject, spilling into areas such as disease control, poverty (image 5) and public health. It also confronts a few cultural taboos. We are naturally repelled not only by our own dirty habits as humans, but by the knowledge that filth, as we might describe any unwanted foreign body or particle, is a necessary part and condition of life: if we read of the billions of bacteria our own bodies play host to, we immediately feel a sense of unease and want to scratch. But our fascination also runs deep.

The Wellcome Collection explores many aspects of dirt: what it means, and what we feel about it. It travels across history and continents. In London, Joseph William Bazalgette (image 1) designed and built the sewer network in response to “The Great Stink” of 1858, relieving the city of its deadly cholera epidemics (images 2 and 3).

But, of course, it wasn’t just London that was affected by the disease. An 1830s etching shows a young Venetian woman ravaged by its effects in a graphic before and after picture (image 7).

With Bazalgette’s engineering ingenuity, the process of cleansing the River Thames began. An etching of 1828 (main picture) depicts a "microscopic" sample in which a number of foul, pestilent and fantastical creatures can be seen. It’s inscribed with the words “Monster Soup, commonly called Thames Water” - though, in fact, few creatures could actually live in these noxious waters. Today, we have a number of freshwater fish, including trout, making the Thames their home.

We also view living matter under the microscope for the first time (image 6), courtesy of Newton’s contemporary and rival Robert Hooke: as well as being a genius natural philosopher, Hooke was an extremely talented draughtsman and artist. And we marvel at an intricate 17th-century drawing of the development of a flea from egg to adult (image 8).

We can compare the 19th-century Great Dust Heap at King’s Cross, London (image 4) with the 20th-century’s Fresh Kills landfill, New York (image 10), once, at 2,200 acres, the world's largest landfill site.

The garbage dump of King’s Cross appears in Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend, where an underclass of scavengers eke out a living from its waste: cinder-dust used to make bricks or sold as fertiliser, bones crushed for use in the production of soap, linens turned into paper and metals melted down. Today, we see similar impoverished communities of “untouchables” clearing the rubbish mountains of human waste in New Delhi.

In 1848 the black dust mountain of King's Cross was finally moved to make way for the railway terminus and exported to Russia. There the ash was mixed with clay and used to make the bricks that rebuilt a war-ravaged Moscow. Meanwhile, Fresh Kills, which opened as a temporary landfill site in 1947 but soon became New York’s principal landfill, is being reclaimed for reuse as a park.

Still, however expensive the makeover, we'll always know one thing for sure: where there's life, there's muck.

Click an image to enter gallery

  1. Portrait of Sir Joseph William Bazalgette (1819-1891), Punch, 1883 Credit: Wellcome Library, London 
  2. Defending Britain against the invasion of cholera; satirising resistance to the Reform Bill. Lithograph c 1832. Lettering: ‘John Bull catching the cholera’. Credit: Wellcome Library, London
  3. A figure dressed in a cholera safety suit. 19th-century coloured etching. Credit Wellcome Library
  4. King's Cross, London: the Great Dust-Heap, next to Battle Bridge and the Smallpox Hospital. Watercolour, 1837, E H Dixon
  5. Close, No 118 High Street, Glasgow, from Old Closes and Street, Thomas Annan, 1868. Credit: British Library
  6. Micrographia, 1665, Robert Hooke. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. (Figure 1: Of blue mould, and of the first principles of vegetation arising from putrefaction. Figure 2: Of a plant growing in the blighted or yellow specks of Damask-rose leaves, bramble leaves and some other kinds of leaves.)
  7. A young Venetian woman, aged 23, depicted before and after contracting cholera, 1831. Credit: Wellcome Library, London
  8. The development of the flea from egg to adult, Anthony van Leeuwenhoek in Arcana naturae, 1695. Credit: Wellcome Library, London
  9. Poster for the First International Hygiene Exhibition in Dresden, designed by Franz von Stuck, 1911. Credit: Deutsches Hygiene-Museum, Dresden
  10. Front loaders on garbage mound at Fresh Kills, 1960s. Courtesy of the City of New York

With Bazalgette’s engineering ingenuity, the process of cleansing the River Thames began

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