Darwin’s Photographic Portraits

Darwin was a photography enthusiast. This is evident not only in his use of photography for the study of Expression and Emotions in Man and Animal, but can be witnessed in his many photographic portraits and in the extensive portrait correspondence that Darwin undertook throughout his lifetime. His close friend and botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker would come to call Darwin’s epistolary exchange of photographic images as his carte correspondence”. Hooker was jokingly lamenting his role as an intermediary for Darwin and his correspondents from around the globe in their exchange of carte-de-visites, or small photographic prints made in large numbers and printed on hard card for ease of exchange.

While collecting photographic portraits of friends and relatives was not a pursuit unique to Darwin (the exchange of photographic images was a popular activity for many Victorians), when placed in the context of Darwin’s correspondence more broadly, we can see an interesting trend. When Darwin sent his photograph to a close ally, such as the Harvard botanist Asa Gray, or when he was given a photograph as a token of esteem by a colleague, such as Daniel Oliver at Kew, the image became more than just a physical reminder of likeness. It performed the same function that his correspondence as a whole did for him; it created and reinforced his experimental and scientific network.

Darwin’s Portraits

Darwin sat for his portrait numerous times throughout his life. The people standing behind the camera ranged from family members, to famous photographers to studio portraitists looking to sell Darwin’s image to the masses. Between 1842 and his death in 1882, Darwin was persuaded to sit in front of the camera on 18 separate occasions which resulted in 32 different poses showing Darwin’s likeness. There were certainly many more exposures taken during these sessions – as was the fallibility of the camera and artist and uncertainty of the light and conditions in nineteenth-century photography.


Charles Darwin and William Darwin, 1842, Artist Unknown, Dar 225:129, ©Cambridge University Library

Darwin’s first photo-chemical experience occurred three years after the invention of photography itself. This image, viewed on the computer screen is deceptively two dimensional. The original image is unlike many photographs we are used to seeing. It is a Daguerreotype – a process invented in France in 1839 by Louise Jacque Mandé Daguerre and Nicéphore Niépce – which is the product of exposing a light sensitive emulsion coated over a polished metal plate.

This particular daguerreotype is unique in terms of Darwin’s collection of photographs – it is the only Daguerreotype Darwin is known to have had taken in his lifetime, and it is a singular object – it was not intended as an image to be mailed or exchanged, but rather was an object of display placed on a Darwin family mantlepiece. The image shows the familial side of Darwin, as a young father with his young son, William.

Image: Charles Darwin and William Darwin, 1842, Artist Unknown, Dar 225:129, ©Cambridge University Library 


Charles Darwin, c.1855, Maull and Polybank, Dar 225:175, ©Cambridge University LibraryDarwin waited ten years before he sat for his next photograph. By 1853, Darwin’s life as a naturalist was well established, and he was gaining in popularity thanks to his account of his journey on the Beagle and his two volumes of Journal of Researches that resulted from that five-year voyage. The photographers Maull and Polyblank (later known as Maull and Fox) operated a studio in London and made at least four different exposures of Darwin between 1853 and 1857.

They took this now well-known photograph of Darwin in 1855 for their Literary and Scientific Portrait Club – a series of prints of notable Victorian men, sold on subscription. While this image is notable as the first popular image of Darwin, the extent to which Darwin disliked it is also remarkable. Referring to the copy he had sent five years previously in his 1860 letter to Hooker, Darwin exclaimed “for Heaven-sake oblige me & burn that now hanging up in your room. It makes me look atrociously wicked.”

Image: Charles Darwin, c.1855, Maull and Polybank, Dar 225:175, ©Cambridge University Library


Charles Darwin, 1860-61, William Darwin, Courtesy of Harvard University Herbaria and the Botany LibrariesDarwin’s next experience with the photographic lens was a family matter, and he was far more satisfied with the results. In 1860-61 and again in 1864 Charles Darwin sat for his eldest son, William Darwin, and these two images became the objects which Darwin most often praised when sending them to friends near and far. In 1862 Darwin wrote to the son of his old shipmate Philip Parker King, and included the photograph taken by William, which Darwin deemed ‘a good likeness’.

Charles Darwin, 1864, William Darwin, Dar 225:113, ©Cambridge University LibraryIn fact, these two photographs reproduced here were the only images which Darwin made note of in his correspondence (with the exception of one instance in 1871 when he sent a photograph by Oscar Rejlander). These two images are the first – and, until 1867, the only – photographs Darwin was willing to allow others to see following the publication of On The Origin of Species.

Taken together, they are also the most transformative photographs of Darwin.The years between 1860 and 1864 took a physical and emotional toll on Darwin, as he underwent the ravages of the reception of his theory of evolution, and a prolonged illness in 1863. These two images also mark the most significant change in his outward appearance – the growth of his ‘venerable beard’!

Images: Charles Darwin, 1860-61, William Darwin, Courtesy of Harvard University Herbaria and the Botany Libraries (left) and Charles Darwin, 1864, William Darwin, Dar 225:113, ©Cambridge University Library (right)


Charles Darwin, 1865-1866, London Stereoscopic & Photographic Company, after Ernest Edwards, NPG x5939, © National Portrait Gallery, London (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)Darwin’s celebrity soon started to outpace the requests he was receiving for copies of his photograph. In 1867, he was approached by a photographer named Ernest Edwards, who is now primarily known for the set of four carte-de-visite images he made of Darwin. These images gained a mass audience through their resale under the imprint of the London Stereoscopic Company, one of the most successful and prolific photography firms in the nineteenth-century.

While Darwin’s letters do not indicate whether he actually used this photograph when a likeness was requested, we do know that there was an increase in the number of images he sent out between 1867 and 1869. For example, when writing to Carl Vogt  – a geologist and zoologist living in Geneva – in April 1867, Darwin asked Vogt to send his own photograph and made sure to note that “I enclose one of myself in case you wd like to have it”. The carte lent itself easily to correspondences – these were small objects, printed on harder paper than typical photographs, and typically produced in large numbers. This was Darwin’s first carte, but it would not be his last.

Image: Charles Darwin, 1865-1866, London Stereoscopic & Photographic Company, after Ernest Edwards, NPG x5939, © National Portrait Gallery, London (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)


Charles Darwin, 1868, Julia Margaret Cameron, Dar 225:139, ©Cambridge University LibraryDarwin rarely left the comforts of his house at Down in Kent, if he could avoid it. On a few occasions, Darwin and his family did make summer vacations in various locations around the UK. In the summer of 1868 the  photographer, Julia Margaret Cameron – who had already produced portraits of other nineteenth-century celebrities such as the astronomer William Herschel and later Alfred Tennyson – enticed the Darwin family to come out to her house on the Isle of Wight to enjoy the seaside air. Invariably, it was not just the Darwin family in attendance, but the party included some of Darwin’s scientific friends, and Hooker in particular.

Darwin left the Isle of Wight having been entirely charmed with Cameron’s renowned wit and her photographic camera. That week she made four exposures of Darwin, which lend extraordinary depth of tone and detail to Darwin’s increasingly well-known beard and penetrating gaze. These photographs were rarely included in a Darwin letter, save for perhaps a very few close friends. Rather, as Joseph Hooker pointed out to Darwin in a series of letters about Cameron’s visit and her photographs, the prints were “far too big for travelers to carry away”. While these particular photographs would become very popular through their sale at London-based photography studios, Darwin probably continued to send the cartes made by Ernest Edwards.

Image: Charles Darwin, 1868, Julia Margaret Cameron, Dar 225:139, ©Cambridge University Library


Charles Darwin on his horse 'Tommy', 1868, Leonard Darwin, Dar 225:116, ©Cambridge University LibraryIn the same summer that Darwin had his picture taken by Cameron, he also sat for what remains a pretty unique photograph – Darwin in a top hat sitting atop a recently purchased horse named Tommy. The man behind the camera was Darwin’s younger son, Leonard Darwin, who, six years later, would take his camera across the globe to observe the 1874 transit of Venus.

Tommy, the horse, was bought so that Darwin could get out into the countryside more regularly. The animal was sold again following an unfortunate spill, but the portrait is proof of his existence. This apparent double portrait also gives us a good sense of the problems involved in taking photographs before the invention of what has come to be known as ‘instantaneous photography’ in the 1870s. Tommy’s head is slightly blurred – which is a result of him moving while the exposure was being made.  Darwin, on the other hand, was already a professional sitter and knew to stay still.

Image: Charles Darwin on his horse ‘Tommy’, 1868, Leonard Darwin, Dar 225:116, ©Cambridge University Library


In 1869, Darwin sat again for a studio photographer for more carte-de-visites. Photographers arrived at Down House from the firm of Elliot and Fry, who were well-known for their celebrity, political and Royal  portraits. By then, Darwin was well and truly tired of having his portrait taken for public consumption.

Responding to a letter from a German translator – Adolph Meyer – asking Darwin to sit for a double portrait with Alfred Russell Wallace. Darwin refused, and informed Meyer that “Photographs can be procured at Messrs Elliot & Fry, or Messrs Edwards & Bult both residing in Baker St London…I am very sorry to be disobliging about the Photographs, but I cannot endure the thought of sitting again, and I have refused 3 or 4 Photographers lately.”


Charles Darwin, 1871, Oscar Rejlander, Dar 257:14, ©Cambridge University LibraryAt the same time that Darwin began to tire of photographic studios soliciting him, he launched his only large-scale photographic experiment. While he had been paying particular attention to the physical display of emotions since he first started observing how his children responded to various stimuli, it was not until the late 1860s that he began his research into this field in earnest. Utilizing his large network of correspondents, Darwin wrote letters asking friends and colleagues to send images and descriptions of the representation of emotions.

One of his correspondents was Oscar Rejlander, a well-known London-based photographer born in Sweden who integrated theater, classical art and photographic dexterity in all his work. Rejlander produced a number of photographs for Darwin of various forms of expression, the most famous of which was crying baby, later dubbed by the Victorian press as ‘Ginx’s Baby‘. Rejlander also took the opportunity to make some portraits of Darwin. These turned out to be, in Darwin’s own estimation, “The best photographs of me”.

Image: Charles Darwin, 1871, Oscar Rejlander, Dar 257:14, ©Cambridge University Library


During the intervening years, while Darwin wrote and published two of his most important evolutionary tracts – The Descent of Man and Expressions and Emotions in Man and Animal – he took a hiatus from sitting for his photographic image. Once these books were out, however, he needed an updated carte-de-visite that he could send out  to his friends and supporters.

He turned, again, to the photographers who had made his most recent cartes, Elliot and Fry. They produced at least four different poses, which Darwin would have sent to friends and admirers. For example, when writing to Pauline Perfilieff, a member of the Tolstoy family in March of 1874, Darwin included the line “I have the pleasure to enclose a photograph which you do me the honour to wish to possess.” As the letter and photograph had to travel from Down House to Moscow, it’s likely that Darwin was referring to this newly-produced carte.

Image: Charles Darwin, 1874, Elliot and Fry, Dar 257:11,  ©Cambridge University Library


Charles Darwin, 1878, Leonard Darwin, Dar 225:119, ©Cambridge University LibraryIn the same year that Darwin had Elliot and Fry return to make his carte, he asked his son, Leonard, to produce a more private image. This image shows Leonard’s increasing photography skills – the depth of tone, posing and detailed focus on Darwin’s countenance in the photograph remind a viewer of the earlier portrait made by Julia Margaret Cameron.

The photograph was also made as a memento for both Darwin and for Leonard. Leonard was soon to depart on his long journey to New Zealand where he would attempt – and ultimately fail – to take photographs of Venus passing over the disc of the Sun. This photograph therefore traveled, but in a suitcase rather than a postman’s bag.

Image: Charles Darwin, 1878, Leonard Darwin, Dar 225:119, ©Cambridge University Library


Charles Darwin, 1878, Leonard Darwin, Dar 225:1, ©Cambridge University LibraryBetween 1874 and 1878 Darwin was very busy – too busy, in fact, to sit for photographs. During these four years, he researched and published three new books – on Insectivorous Plants, The Effects of Cross and Self Fertilisation in the Vegetable Kingdom, and The Different Forms of Flowers on Plants of the Same Species – and issued a new edition of his Coral Reefs book.

While Darwin worked in his study, Down House was changing rapidly. In 1876 a new extension was built onto the house, including a veranda overlooking the sprawling, but well-kept garden. It was on this new veranda that Leonard took another portrait of his father, sitting comfortably on a wicker chair.

Image: Charles Darwin, 1878, Leonard Darwin, Dar 225:1, ©Cambridge University Library


Charles Darwin, 1877, Lock & Whitfield, NPG x5939, © National Portrait Gallery, London (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)Again, however, Leonard’s photograph was not necessarily for sharing. Rather, Darwin turned to a professional to update his carte catalogue. This would be the second-last carte that he would have taken in his life, but not the last photograph. The company which he solicited to take this image, Lock and Whitfield, came to Darwin’s attention due to their series of woodburytype prints of famous Victorians made in 1877, which they printed and sold under the title Men of Mark.

Men of Mark included individuals such as Astronomer Royal, George Biddle Airy, and friend and close correspondent John Tyndall. Lock and Whitfield seem to have only taken one pose of Darwin, yet this image would have gained wide circulation through its sale in London photo shops.

Image: Charles Darwin, 1877, Lock & Whitfield, NPG x5939, © National Portrait Gallery, London (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)


Charles Darwin, 1881, Elliot and Fry, Dar 140.1:32, ©Cambridge University LibraryTwo years later, Darwin turned again to the firm of Elliot and Fry to make the last large series of photographic portraits that he would take. Returning to his veranda, Elliot and Fry made seven different exposures, which detail very strikingly Darwin’s advanced age. Years earlier, one of Darwin’s German publishers, had expressed upon receiving a new photograph of Darwin – probably one of the Ernest Edwards portraits – that “I was not a little surprised to receive instead of the familiar fine figure of the earlier picture, that of a more elderly gentleman with grey beard.”

In the Elliot and Fry photographs, on the other hand, Darwin’s age is front and center. In the majority of the exposures, he is wrapped in a thick cloak to protect against the chill. His direct gaze, and ever-growing beard, however, remained hallmarks of his celebrity portrait, as they had done ever since William Darwin took the first portrait with his ‘venerable beard’ in 1864.

Image: Charles Darwin, 1881, Elliot and Fry, Dar 140.1:32, ©Cambridge University Library


Charles Darwin, 1881, Barraud, Dar 257:6, ©Cambridge University LibraryThe final photograph of Darwin would be produced by the London photographer Herbert Rose Barraud. Barraud produced both loose leaf prints and cartes which he sold through his London and Liverpool studios. He would take three exposures of Darwin, closely cropped on Darwin’s face. These photographs would stand as Darwin’s last photographic images, but after his death a year later, they would not necessarily stand as his visual legacy.

When English periodicals came to print their obituaries of Darwin they would, more often than not, include an engraving of one of his photographic portraits. Periodicals such as The Illustrated London News, The Graphic, and The Illustrated Police News used various earlier portraits, including the Ernest Edwards cartes from 17 years earlier. When it came to the public reception of his photographic likeness, Darwin – like many other Victorian celebrities – was at the mercy of the media. Thus, throughout his life, Darwin turned to the area of communication he could control – his correspondence. Nine months before his death, Darwin was still writing to friends and saying “I thank you, also, for your photograph which I have added to my collection, & have much pleasure in sending you my own.” To the last, he was maintaining his carte correspondence.

Image: Charles Darwin, 1881, Barraud, Dar 257:6, ©Cambridge University Library


Further Readings

Browne, Janet. “Looking at Darwin. Portraits and the Making of an Icon.” in Isis, 2009, no. 100, pp. 542-570.

Gapps, Suzanne. “Charles Darwin as an Icon.” in Culture and Organization, 2006, vol. 12, no. 4, pp. 341-357.

Prodger, Philip. Darwin’s Camera. Art and Photography in the Theory of Evolution. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Smith, Jonathan.Charles Darwin and Victorian Visual Culture. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Voss, Julia. Darwin’s Pictures: Views of Evolutionary Theory, 1837-1874. New Haven, USA: Yale University Press, 2010.