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Boils, Plague Sores and Embossed Carbunkles

'A Doctor Casting the Water'

‘A Doctor Casting the Water’

Guest Curated by Martin Brown


About the Item

If you lived 500 years ago and were feeling ill, you might send a servant with a flask of your urine (wee-wee) to the local physician (doctor).

As you can see in this painting, the physician would then inspect the urine of his patient while the servant waits to report the results to his master or mistress.  

After looking, smelling and tasting the urine, the physician would use a Urine Chart to determine what was wrong with his patient. Perhaps the physician in the painting is reading a urine chart in the book in front of him.


Martin Brown’s Response


Martin’s notes:

‘Using Urine for diagnosing illness’

"The Horrible Histories have always leant towards the weird, cruel and disgusting - it is horrible history after all. As we say, it’s history with the nasty bits left in!

"It’s easy to poke fun at the past but quite often making a joke is a handy way to remember something or a way to make a more important point.

 "Yes, tasting urine seems totally gross to us, but, as the painting of the physician and his servant shows, when it was done it was done by learned, serious and successful people.

 "A cartoon like this could merely be an easy laugh but with an accompanying explanation it might be something to make you stop and discover - what? Really?

"The drawing is done relatively small to keep the strip-cartoon look."


Behind the Scenes!


Martin Brown says:

“Drawing a Horrible Histories cartoon doesn’t start with a pencil, it doesn’t even start with a blank piece of paper. It begins with reading.

“If I need to draw - I don’t know - a plague doctor - the very first thing I have to do is read about plague doctors. That’s where the ideas will come from. I could merely copy an old picture of a 17th century doctor but there wouldn’t be much point in that. If I want to add something about plague medicine, like a gag or a comment, I have to know about it first.

“After reading, it’s writing. It’s the ideas stage. I have to decide what the gag or comment will be and what the cartoon will look like. We all do this when we draw. We decide all sorts of things - where things go, left or right - how big things are, up close or far away. We don’t know we are doing it but we’re writing our drawings even before we start. I jot down my ideas as soon as I can so I don’t forget them. They’re just doodles or stick figures but that’s enough.

“Then I get drawing - usually a rough sketch to start with - on thin, cheap paper. It helps me finalise the positions of things before I begin the final version. It’s especially useful for gags with speech bubbles. It’s much easier to work out the best arrangement of words on a scrappy piece of paper than drawing and redrawing them over and over later on.

“If the rough looks OK I put it onto my light-box with a sheet of better cartridge paper over the top. That way the rough shows through and I can copy it onto the good paper with pencil without having to start from scratch. Once the basic shapes and details are down I finish the pencilling without the light-box.

“And I can tweak anything I need to along the way with an eraser. I certainly don’t always get everything the way I want it first time.

“Finally it’s time for ink. I go over all the pencil lines and then ‘colour-in’ the bits I want to be darker with cross-hatching - close and multi-layered for dark; open and single layered for light. (I like Edding 1800 pens - they don’t bleed into the paper and they dry very quickly. They are great for the thin key-lines but robust enough for all that tonal hatching.) When the ink is dry, I rub out any pencil line still showing. And perhaps maybe sometimes - make a correction with Tippex. No-one’s perfect!”



Illustrations copyright © Martin Brown

CC-BY-NC-ND Image Courtesy of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust