A Physiognomy

According to the Oxford English Dictionary this word means: ‘Art of judging character from features of face or form of body.’ In the 18th century this assessment of character by virtue of a person’s drawn features was considered a science. In 1743 an Act of Parliament passed a law to prevent the practice. It was thought to be a lowly occupation carried out by the lower echelons of society. After the law was passed punishments for performing these character assessments could be anything from internment to public whippings! It did not seem to have had too much effect on the practice, and must have been difficult to police.

However Physiognomies had been practised since as early as 500 BC. Pythagoras accepted or rejected students on how they LOOKED. It became popular in 16th century Europe too. An Italian scholar, Giambattista della Porta, was one of the most famous writers on the art of Physiognomy.  He attempted to deduce character by observation of physical features and compare human and animal heads to aid characterisation.

In the latter part of the 18th century Johann Caspar Lavater wrote a book called ‘Essays on Physiognomy’ which set out the assessment of character and morality from outer appearances. Lavater commissioned Johan Henrich Fuseli and William Blake to illustrate this tome. He disected the face into different parts, each part giving clues to character. The expression ‘stuck up’ comes from this period when a person with an upturned nose  was thought to show a person with a superior and/or contemptuous attitude.

Scientists still study the science of faces today.

Below is a print called ‘Physiognomies’ by Isaac Cruickshank printed in 1796.Physiog 30.10.13 I found all this so fascinating I made a wrapping paper/poster ‘Physiognomies’. Could you judge the characters of the folks in the print above?






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