‘The Famous Mr Martin van Butchell’
Acquatint depicting ‘The Famous Mr Martin van Butchell’ on a horse, 1759-1775. NN27767
On January 14, 1775, Martin’s first wife died of natural causes at the age of 36. Her husband had trained under John and William Hunter, brothers who were prominent surgeons and enthusiastic anatomists. It’s not recorded why Martin wanted to preserve the body of his wife, whether it was because he could not bear to be without her, or if a clause in their marriage settlement gave him more control over property while his wife remained ‘above the ground’. A reassuring epitaph in newspapers at the time suggests the more romantic former of the two. Regardless of the reason, or if she had agreed to the process, less than 12 hours after her death, her body started to undergo embalming. Her preservation was carried out over the next few days by William Hunter, William Cruikshanks and Martin himself.
Preserving and displaying the body of one’s first wife in the home was not normal practice in Georgian London and would certainly have been the talk of the town. We know that Martin had to post a notice to reduce the number of visitors to his house to view his wife’s remains.
His decision to display his embalmed wife wasn’t the only unusual aspect of Martin van Butchell’s life. In the Museum of London’s collection there is also a black and white printed illustration of Martin on a pony. It doesn’t look too unusual until you learn that his pony was often painted with purple spots, black stripes, or occasionally completely purple.