skip to content

Darwin Correspondence Project

Portraits of Charles Darwin: a catalogue

Compiled by Diana Donald

The format of the catalogue

Nineteenth-century portraits of Darwin are found in a very wide range of visual media. For the purposes of this catalogue, they have been divided into four broad categories, according to medium. Within each category or section, the arrangement is as far as possible chronological. However, derivative works such as reproductive engravings and plaster casts taken from sculptures etc. are grouped with the original works from which they derive, irrespective of the dates of the reproductions. Such clusters may exemplify the proliferation of portrayals of Darwin, their subtle re-workings, and the patterns of their dispersal.

  1. Paintings, drawings, original graphic works such as artists’ etchings and lithographs, and stained glass

  2. Sculptures and moulded works in all materials, such as statues, busts, reliefs, plaques, medallions and medals

  3. Photographs and reproductions of photographs in the form of wood engravings, photogravures etc.

  4. Caricatures and cartoons, physiognomic studies, imagined scenes and ephemera



The iconography of the nineteenth century’s most famous natural scientist, Charles Darwin, confronts us with a paradox. He was known, and indeed venerated, for his quiet and secluded style of living in rural Kent: there, according to admirers, he carried on his researches without worldly ambition or desire for fame. One obituarist noted in 1882 that Darwin ‘never aimed at cheap popular successes . . . did not even lecture on science made easy; he provided no philosophic pap for the devourers of magazines and primers . . . showed himself little in public, he was not found at lectures, nor on platforms’.1 In fact, Darwin never taught in a university or held a senior position in a public institution. Yet Origin of Species and Descent of Man made him an international celebrity. The odium he endured on the first appearance of Origin gradually gave way to a realisation that he had transformed the world-view of thinking people everywhere, and this created an unparalleled demand for portrayals of him – not just among fellow-scientists, but among members of the lay public.  

As late as January 1864 – over four years after the publication of Origin of Species – Darwin’s closest friend, Joseph Hooker, told him, ‘heaps of people want to know what you are like’.2 Photographs of him were then difficult to hunt down in the shops, and were anyway, Hooker thought, ‘not pleasing’; and no paintings or sculptures of Darwin were as yet known to the public. Ten or fifteen years later, there can have been no such difficulties. Portrayals of Darwin proliferated in every medium, ranging from oil paintings to humorous Christmas cards, with an image-forming artfulness that corresponded to his growing fame.  

The catalogue of portraits that I have compiled (running down to c.1910) includes about a hundred and thirty original images of Darwin – paintings, drawings, etchings, medals, busts, ceramic plaques, photographs, graphic satires and imaginary scenes. Moreover, this tally does not include the huge, indeed unquantifiable, diaspora of images that flowed from the originals, in the form of replicas of paintings, reproductive engravings based on photographs for the illustration of books and journals, lantern slides and stereoscopic photographs, casts from three-dimensional works, and even popular ephemera such as wax effigies, cigarette cards and the pictures on cigar boxes.3 After Darwin’s death, commemorative statues became a particularly interesting branch of his iconography, often strongly inflected by national or local patriotism; and such three-dimensional portrayals were in turn widely replicated in reduced versions. There was a plethora of sculpted portrayals of Darwin among the historical figures that decorated the facades of public buildings and monuments, and he also appeared as one of the immortals in the many literary series of Historic Characters or Great Men published in the 1890s. More tendentiously, he figured among the founders of evolutionary theory whose portraits, painted by Karl Bauer in 1909, decorated the entrance hall of Ernst Haeckel’s museum in Jena.4 It is probable that many more nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century images have still to be brought to light, particularly those produced in mainland Europe, and in the United States. American scientists and patrons of scientific institutions were especially keen collectors of ‘Darwiniana’, in the form of statuettes, busts, albums and extra-illustration of books, as well as manuscripts.5 Thus the cataloguing of portraits of all kinds is likely to be an ongoing project. 

It is clear that Darwin’s contemporaries and immediate heirs attached great significance to visual images of him, and to their distinctive features. The centenary celebration at Cambridge in 1909, marking a century since his birth and fifty years since the publication of Origin of Species, included an exhibition at Christ’s College, where he had been an undergraduate. This featured a majority of the existing grand portraits of Darwin in various media, but also, more surprisingly, many of the caricatures and cartoons ridiculing his ideas.6 It was recognised that Darwin’s iconography was, above all, sui generis, reflecting his personal character and sensitivities and the atypical nature of his scientific career. He was almost always represented as a solitary figure, with no accessories, such as would have indicated a particular field of research, institutional affiliations, or the award of public honours; and this phenomenon became linked in people’s minds with the tendency to lump together all advances in evolutionary theory as ‘Darwinism’. As one exasperated writer remarked in 1901, it was made to seem as though Darwin ‘stood alone, severely isolated . . . in reality with no peers’. He was supposedly ‘without companions’.7 Indeed, we can never see Darwin as he appeared to his contemporaries in the ordinary pursuits of life. The existing portraits, including the photographs, are icons rather than biographical or social documents.

This vision of Darwin as a thinker of unique status was certainly promoted by his family and intimate circle: not even they were ever portrayed in his company. Admittedly, he gave sittings to professional photographers throughout his life, and their products were often disseminated through serial publications or portrait montages which brought together diverse ‘men of eminence’, Darwin among them. As ‘cartes de visite’ they can be found in many Victorian albums, of which there is a good collection in the National Portrait Gallery, and Darwin himself sent some of these cartes to favoured fellow scientists in the customary exchanges between correspondents. However, sympathetic portraits by his own sons or by trusted friends like Julia Margaret Cameron and John Collier were increasingly preferred to the bald and often unflattering images of him which issued from the commercial photographic studios, and such approved canonical images produced by members of his circle moved easily between the public and private spheres. As in the management of social interactions, so in the control of representations, Darwin’s family and close associates formed a kind of Praetorian Guard protecting his interests and reputation.8 It was they who created the image of the venerable sage that has been handed down to posterity. Indeed, Ludmilla Jordanova, when tracing traditions in portraits of scientists through the centuries, chose Leonard Darwin’s photograph of his father to exemplify the age-old ‘cult of individual genius . . . of the great scientist’.9 Even the caricatures of Darwin, irreverent as they were, enhanced the impression that he was the commanding figure in the field of scientific advances, and these graphic jokes were happily collected and preserved by the Darwin clan through many generations. 

Cataloguing this mass of heterogeneous materials is no easy task. The Darwin archive in Cambridge University Library and Darwin’s correspondence, now published in full, are the primary resources for research. Many of the actual portraits can be found in the archive or are in the collections of Cambridge University colleges and departments. Others are in the care of English Heritage at Darwin’s home, Down House in Kent, often as loans from the Darwin Heirlooms Trust. The 1909 centenary exhibition and its catalogue are also important sources of information, since they drew on the knowledge and the collections of members of Darwin’s family circle. More recently, his biographer Janet Browne has produced major studies of many aspects of the iconography, interpreting its character within the wider sociohistorical context.10 Using all these sources and many other records, it is possible to compile a catalogue of authentic portraits, and to augment or sometimes correct published data about them. Documentation of the many photographs of Darwin remains problematic, since few records survive from the London studios involved, and Darwin’s family members seldom remembered the exact years when their photographs of him were taken. However, even here his correspondence sometimes provides clues that at least narrow down the possible date brackets.  

The listings of known portraits in Freeman’s Darwin Companion and in the entry for Darwin in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography have now been entirely superseded by John van Wyhe’s extraordinarily comprehensive ‘Iconography’ in Darwin: A Companion (2021). This covers portraits in all media, both original images and a huge number of derivations, down to the present day.11 My catalogue is, as indicated above, much more restricted in its chronological scope, running down to the early years of the twentieth century; and it makes no claim to completeness, even within that period. However, catalogue entries for the featured portraits in all media include discursive texts, in which I have attempted to provide a context for them – artistic, biographical and historical – together with indications of current ownership, medium, and relevant literature.    

My research has been facilitated by many kind museum curators, archivists and librarians, to whom I am extremely grateful. I should particularly like to thank Danielle Czerkaszyn of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History; Inge Fraser of English Heritage, Down House; Rebecca Klarner of the V & A Wedgwood Collection, and Genny Silvanus, archivist of Christ’s College Cambridge: all have provided crucial information and patiently responded to queries. Professor William Friedman has been most generous with his time and knowledge and has sent me photographs of many of the caricatures of Darwin in his unique collection, which I should not otherwise have known about. Throughout the project I have also been encouraged by the support of James Secord and Alison Pearn, who lead the Darwin Correspondence Project; they have offered invaluable advice and smoothed the way to online publication. 


Professor Diana Donald has published widely on satirical imagery of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, including portrait caricatures. More recently she has worked on the interplay between natural science and visual culture in the nineteenth century, notably in Picturing Animals in Britain, 1750-1850 (Yale University Press, 2007), and The Art of Thomas Bewick (Reaktion Books, 2013). She was guest curator for the exhibition Endless Forms: Charles Darwin, Natural Science and the Visual Arts at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge and the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven in 2009, and contributed the introduction and three essays to the accompanying book.


  1. ‘Death of Mr. Charles R. Darwin’, Daily News (21 April 1882). A writer on ‘The late Mr. Darwin’ in the Illustrated London News, 91:2527 (24 September 1887), p. 377, thought he ‘cared more for the cause of science than for personal self-exaltation’.  

  2. Hooker to Darwin, 24 January 1864 (DCP-LETT-4396). It was only in 1866 that another devoted follower of Darwin, James Shaw, first saw a portrait of him – Vincent Brooks’s lithograph based on William Darwin’s photograph, featured in the Quarterly Journal of Science; cf. DCP-LETT-5060. 

  1. ‘Germany’, a report in the Times (29 April 1882), p. 7, mentions a ‘wax figure of the late Mr. Darwin’ in the Berlin ‘Panoptikon’. Cf. J van Wyhe, ‘Iconography’, p. 115.  

  2. Olaf Breidbach, Visions of Nature: The Art and Science of Ernst Haeckel (Munich, Berlin, London, New York: Prestel [2006]), pp. 200–201.  

  1. For example, the Warren D. Mohr collection in the Huntington Library, San Marino, and the extensive collections of Charles Finney Cox in the archive of the Mertz Library, New York Botanical Garden.  

  1. A.E. Shipley and J.C. Simpson (eds), Darwin Centenary: The Portraits, Prints and Writings of Charles Robert Darwin, exhibited at Christ’s College, Cambridge, 1909 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1909). 

  1. Alexander Hay Japp, Darwin Considered Mainly as Ethical Thinker, Human Reformer and Pessimist, With a Letter to Mr. Spencer (London: John Bale, Sons and Danielsson, 1901), p. 11. 

  1. Francis Darwin’s idealising presentation of his father’s character in the Life and Letters continued this trend. Janet Browne, ‘Making Darwin: biography and the changing representations of Charles Darwin’, Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 11:3 (Winter 2010), pp. 347–373 (pp. 358–360). 

  1. Ludmilla Jordanova, Defining Features: Scientific and Medical Portraits 1660–2000 (London: National Portrait Gallery and Reaktion Books, 2000), pp. 69–70. 

  1. Essays by Janet Browne: ‘”I could have retched all night”: Charles Darwin and his body’, in Christopher Lawrence and Steven Shapin (eds), Science Incarnate: Historical Embodiments of Natural Knowledge (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1998), pp. 240–287. ‘Charles Darwin as a celebrity’, Science in Context, 16: 1-2 (March 2003), pp. 175–194. ‘Presidential address: commemorating Darwin’, British Journal for the History of Science, 38:3 (Sept. 2005), pp. 251–274. ‘Darwin in caricature: a study in the popularization and dissemination of evolutionary theory’, in Barbara Larson and Fae Brauer (eds), The Art of Evolution: Darwin, Darwinisms, and Visual Culture (Hanover NH: Dartmouth College Press and University Press of New England, 2009), pp. 18–39. ‘Looking at Darwin: portraits and the making of an icon’, Isis, 100:3 (Sept. 2009), pp. 542–570. ‘Making Darwin: biography and changing representations of Charles Darwin’, Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 40 (2010), pp. 347–373. See also the references to portraits in Browne’s Charles Darwin: The Power of Place. Volume II of a Biography (London: Jonathan Cape, 2002).  

  1. R.B. Freeman, Charles Darwin: A Companion, 1978, at Adrian Desmond, James Moore and Janet Browne, entry for Darwin in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography; list of ‘Likenesses’. Paul van Helvert and John van Whye, Darwin: A Companion (New Jersey: World Scientific, 2021), containing John van Whye’s ‘Iconography’, pp. 113–190 (cited where relevant in my catalogue entries as J. van Wyhe, ‘Iconography’, with page references).  


In this section: