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Sophie Partridge takes a look at some images from the Royal College of Physicians' Museum collection / 15 July 2010

sepia illustration of a bewigged gentleman of short stature

Matthew Buchinger, 1724 © Royal College of Physicians.

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Been a busy rabbit lately. Last Tuesday, attended the Royal College of Physicians’ Rethinking Disability Project Focus Group at Shape. The aim of it was to look at some of the medical illustrations in their archive and talk about what the images say about disabled people. Our discussions are to be part of an exhibition doing the rounds early next year.

The blurb participants were sent told us we would be interviewed and also photographed, with a prop and/ or costume if we so wished! The idea being that our images would be added to the archive of past and present ‘Cripplys’. I tried to bring things that were the `essence’ of me, ahem. I restrained myself from taking in my kettle-tipper but couldn’t resist my pink hoody, piggy mug (with my name on no less!) and stick-thing with manky bit of blue-tack on the end. Quite what these items say about me is probably best left un-said!

We then set about focussing on what the images set before us said’ about the subjects. All the pictures were high quality illustrations and we were split into groups with a set of prints each. Not sure if our individual impairments influenced the group we were allotted, but I had three small peeps and one parasitic twin’ in mine?!

My initial reaction to the first portrait - a Mr. Wybrand Lolkes in 1822, allegedly 2”1’ - was “there’s no way that bloke is so small. He’s loads bigger than me!” (For the record, I’m officially 2”11). This led to a discussion on the myths we perpetuate about ourselves. Or allow to be perpetuated. More than that tho, was my mix bag of emotions on seeing him and the other small men.’

As a young child, I knew I was never going to grow Up a lot. But because I didn’t know any small adults, I found it almost impossible to imagine myself in a future. Yet they were out there, I just had to keep living to find them. And back in the 19th century Wybrand and the like, were out there doing their stuff. Apparently these famed disabled people of their time, travelled further and widely, compared to the Non’s of their day. But where were the small women I wonder?!

Matey Wybrand had jacked in his trade as a jeweller, because more money could be made exhibiting himself as a short person. Can’t help thinking that’s become my trade - one way or another! Somehow I had a sense of relief seeing these peeps, knowing generations had gone before, living in a world without any model of disability. Or even disability as a term of reference!

Viewing and listening wasn’t always easy. We were told how our second short gent - John Worrenberg of Switzerland - drowned in a box in which he was carried on and off boats on his travels after an `unfortunate accident’!?! Then came the drawing of John Porro from Genoa and his twin, Mathew. There wasn’t much of Mathew; some plaited hair and his head turned inwards towards John’s stomach to which he‘s attached, teeth showing. For a minute I was there in that room in a pub long ago, seeing John and Mathew; perhaps even being Mathew, not knowing how I thought I felt. Pity? Worry and sadness certainly, for both their plights. Negative assumptions? Mathew is rested on a small table in the picture, John’s hand on his back. I don’t know if the gesture is protective. John looks away…

In the afternoon comes the Crème De La Crème, in the condensed form of Matthew Buchinger from Germany, complete with fleshy processes (doctors speak for little fingers!). This is a beautifully drawn self-portrait of Herr Buchinger, bordered with intricate patterns and text loudly blowing his own trumpet.

This Matthew advertises his many talents, including dancing the Scottish Horn-pipe; fairly challenging I’d have thought, considering he doesn’t seem to have much in the way of legs! He sits there immaculately dressed on a sumptuous cushion.

Make no mistake, this appears to be a portrait of a proud man. Somehow on seeing this, my heart lifts. Whilst other babies born with such full-on impairments at that time, were “left in buckets under the bed” there he was, doing his thing.

Am I wrong to surmise that Buchinger had been loved and cherished as a child with ‘fleshy bits’ (not `in spite of his disability' bollocks!) in order to become the adult man he became? The group came to a close and I left with a brimming bag of emotions.