History of Art


Rebecca Whiteley


I graduated from my BA in English Language and Literature at the University of Oxford in 2011. I completed my MA in the History of Art department at UCL in 2013 and returned to the department in 2014 to start my PhD.


Picturing figures and figuring pictures: images of the pregnant body and the foetus in utero, 1540-c.1780

Images showing fetal presentations during labour, called birth figures, were regularly printed in midwifery and surgical books from the mid-sixteenth to at least the late-eighteenth century in England. Despite the centrality of these images to midwifery practice in the early modern period, very little critical attention has been paid to them.

My research aims to place these images in their historical context and to understand how they both reflected and affected how viewers envisioned and understood the pregnant body and the unborn child. The period of my research spans the rise of obstetrics, the domination of the field by male practitioners and the medicalisation of the pregnant and labouring body. My thesis will demonstrate that close analysis of birth figures can throw light on and enrich our histories of childbirth, midwifery and the body during this period of enormous change.

Research Interests

My research interests include social art history, print history, print culture and histories of medical and scientific imagery. As well as my PhD research into early modern images of the pregnant body and the foetus in utero, I have worked on the Little Gidding concordances and am interested in the unusual and creative techniques for collaging prints employed by this community in the early seventeenth century.


Winner of the Roy Porter Student Essay Prize, 2015, awarded by the Society for the Social History of Medicine. Paper to be published in the Social History of Medicine journal.

3 month research fellowship at the Huntington Library, Los Angeles. Awarded by the International Placement Scheme, AHRC.


Conference Papers

Fetal fruit, maternal tree: analogical thinking about the pregnant body and the unborn child in seventeenth-century England.” Paper at Scientiae conference, Oxford, July 2016.

“Images of practice, images in practice: The role of birth figures in Justine Siegemund’s The Court Midwife of the Electorate of Brandenburg.” Invited talk at Medicinsk Museion, Copenhagen, February 2016.

“Figuring pictures and picturing figures : early modern images of the unborn child and the pregnant body”. Invited paper at Women’s History Seminar Series, Institute of Historical Research, October 2015.

“Revealing the secrets of the body: early modern images of the lying-in chamber and the foetus in utero” at Know Thyself conference, History of Art Department, UCL, May 2015.

Online Content

“The birth of mankind’ and the revolutionary image of the foetus in utero” on Wellcome Collection Early Medicine Blog, 11/06/2015. http://blog.wellcomelibrary.org/2015/06/the-birth-of-mankind-and-the-revolutionary-image-of-the-foetus-in-utero/

“The Little Gidding Concordance: Case Study” on Royal Collection website. https://www.royalcollection.org.uk/collection/about/books-and-manuscripts/little-gidding