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  • Writer's pictureDebbie Challis

Seeing White: Swarthy and Fair

Robert Knox was a ‘pivotal figure’ in the history of British racism (Malik, 1996: 89; Biddiss, 1976: 245). Like

most men of his class and age, he was schooled in Greek and Latin and after becoming a surgeon, described himself as an anatomist and a classical scholar (Rae, 1964: 149). Knox had been a surgeon and lecturer in anatomy for the medical school in Edinburgh. The murders of vulnerable people by William Burke and William Hare to provide bodies for dissection and medical observation at Knox’s medical school were brought to light in 1828. Knox became a hated man in the city. Eventually, he left for London, where he managed Felix Thibert’s human anatomy model museum and began a lecture tour on the Races of Men in 1848 (Lonsdale, 1870: 101).

Knox was a polygenesist, i.e. he believed races were biologically (and culturally) separate from each other and a firm believer in biological determinism based on racial difference (Richards, 1989: 376). He was also politically Radical and his lecture series Races of Men was grounded in the political turbulence of the 1840s, with revolutions in Europe, as well as Chartism and the Irish famine leading to mass migration in Britain. Knox delivered his lectures on race in the ‘heyday of science lecturing’ to ‘self-improving artisans’ in rapidly growing industrial cities like Newcastle or Manchester (Hewitt, 1996: 139).

Image of a Russia soldier
A so-called 'Russ' from Races of Men

In much of The Races of Men Knox concentrated on distinguishing between types of the ‘fair’, or white, race. Knox opened with a lecture ‘On the Saxon Race’, which he depicts as Germanic but with origins ‘early in Greece’ where it contributed ‘to the formation of the noblest of men’. Whereas he identified the race currently living in the Balkans, including Modern Greece, as ‘Russ’ and stated that ‘no fair race was ever sunk so low in the scale of humanity’ as the Russ (Knox, 1862: 47 & 366). In doing this, like Ellis and the 1816 Parliamentary Report, Knox biologically and culturally ‘disinherited

Drawing of the head of Apollo Belvedere
A so-called 'Saxon' from Races of Men

modern Greeks from ancient Greece’ (Tanner, 2010: 7). Knox argued that the present ‘Saxon race’ was developed from ancient Greece where ‘it contributed mainly, no doubt, to the formation of the noblest of all men’. Knox contended that ‘it is in England and in other countries inhabited by the Saxon or Scandinavian race that women resembling the Niobe, and men the Hercules and Mars are chiefly to be found’ (Knox, 1862: 403).

After Races of Men, Knox spent ‘many hours in the British Museum studying Greek sculpture’, unsuccessfully applying there for a job in 1852 (Rae, 1964: 147 & 151). I have written about Knox and his use of ancient sculpture in Races of Men a little bit elsewhere (here for Greece and

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for Egypt), but did not consider his guides to the sculpture galleries of the British Museum in any detail. In 1849 Knox translated Julien Fau’s Anatomy for artists from French to English for Bailliere’s Library of Illustrated Scientific Works (Fau & Knox, 1849: xi). Knox added an Appendix in which four of the six additional chapters were based on the collections of the British Museum. These acted as guides to the galleries and concentrated on the anatomy of the sculptures with reference to racial types. In ‘some observations’ of the Elgin Marbles, Knox contended that one head

A metope from Anatomy for Artists (not the frieze as the caption in the book says).

of a centaur on a metope was Samartian (people from central Asia), while another was Muscovite ‘with flat faces. . . large eyes, square and misshapen’ (Fau & Knox, 1849: 229 & 247). In essence Knox argued that the Greeks made the half-beast half-human centaurs representations of races different from their own ‘Saxon’ type. Knox’s work is not unknown. In a podcast for the project 100 Histories of 100 Worlds in 1 Object, Subhadra Das takes one Centaur and Lapith metope from the Parthenon Sculptures and draws on Knox (and others) to dismantle how it has been used to depict race and whiteness (Das, 2020).

Knox’s 1852 A Manual of Artistic Anatomy largely incorporated material from his earlier translation but concentrated on the female body, particularly the Townley Venus and goddesses on the Parthenon pediment. He contended that they were ‘distinguished from Oriental nations’ and stressed the female body as key to racial purity and breeding (Leoussi, 1999: 79). Unusually Knox referred to Winckelmann, whose work made more of an impact in Britain from the 1860s (Harloe, 2018: 48). It is likely that Winckelmann’s ideas on sculpture and culture reflected the increasingly racially deterministic theories in Victorian Britain. Knox’s work contributed to the ‘fetishization of tall, pale, blond, beautiful Anglo-Saxons’ but for him skin colour alone did not indicate racial difference (Painter, 2010: 200). Knox does not use ‘black’ or ‘white’ as descriptors, but rather ‘swarthy’, ‘dark’ or ‘fair’ – terms with value laden judgements that denoted different racial hierarchies within White Europe. In 1999 I read these terms to describe Greeks and so-called Saxon Britons in a national newspaper in reference to the conference at the British Museum. These racist ideas were (arguably are) deeply embedded within British society.


Bates, A. W. Bates (2010), The Anatomy of Robert Knox. Murder, Mad Science and Medical Regulation in Nineteenth Century Edinburgh, Eastbourne: Sussex Academic Press.

Biddiss, M. D. (1976), ‘The Politics of Anatomy, Dr Robert Knox and Victorian Racism’, Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine, Vo. 69, 245-250.

Das, Subhadra (2020), ‘The Parthenon Sculptures, Race and British Identity’. 100 Histories of 100 Worlds in 1 Object (podcast). 2020. Accessed 19/01/2022:

Fau, J. & Knox, Robert (1849), The Anatomy of the External Forms of Man: Intended for the Use of Artists, Painters and Sculptors, London: Bailliere, Tindall, and Cox.

Harloe, Katherine (2018), ‘Winckelmania: Hellenomania between ideal and experience’, in Katherine Harloe, Nicoletta Momigliano and Alexandra Farnoux (eds) Hellenomania, London: Routledge, 40-55.

Hewitt, Martin Hewitt (1996), The Emergence of Stability in the Industrial City: Manchester 1832-67.

Knox, Robert (1852) A Manual of Artistic Anatomy for the use of Sculptors, Painters and Amateurs, London.

(1862), The Races of Men. A Philosophical Enquiry into the Influence of Race over the Destinies of Nations, London: Henry Renshaw.

Leoussi, A. (1999), ‘Nationalism and the Antique in Nineteenth Century English and French art’, in M. Biddiss and M. Wyke (eds), The Use and Abuse of Classical Antiquity, Berg: Peter Lang AG, 79-101.

Lonsdale, Henry (1870), A sketch of the life and writings of Robert Knox, the anatomist / by his pupil and colleague, Henry Lonsdale.

Rae, Isabel (1964), Knox the Anatomist, London: Oliver and Bond.

Richards, Evelleen (1989), ‘The ‘Moral Anatomy’ of Robert Knox: The Interplay Between Biological and Social Thought in Victorian Scientific Naturalism’, Journal of the History of Biology, 22 (3), 373-436.

Painter, Nell Irvin (2010), The History of White People, London: W. W. Norton and Company.

Tanner, Jeremy (2010), ‘Introduction to the New Volume: Race and Representation in Ancient Art: Black Athena and after’, D. Bindman and S. Gates (eds), The Image of the Black in Western Art, Volume 1: From the Pharaohs to the Fall of the Roman Empire, Harvard University Press.


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