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Darwin Correspondence Project

1.1 Ellen Sharples pastel

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The earliest surviving portrayal of Darwin, who was born on 12 February 1809, is this pastel or chalk drawing by Ellen Wallace Sharples. He is shown kneeling chivalrously before his sister Catherine (born in 1810), in the kind of pretty grouping of young children which was Sharples’s speciality. Many elements of the double portrait are conventional, including the wide-eyed charm of the children, the spray of flowers held by Catherine, and her little wicker basket of flowers on the floor. However, Charles is already individualised by his precocious interest in growing plants, especially those of an unusual character. In the heavy pot he holds is a plant tentatively identified as Lachenalia aloides, the opal flower, native to the Western Cape of South Africa. Susan Campbell’s listing of the rare plants cultivated in the conservatory and glasshouses at the Mount, Darwin’s family home, includes only Lachenalia pendula or bulbifera, but such designations and the features of the plants themselves are often variable over time. Lachenalia aloides flowers in early Spring, and it has been suggested that its inclusion here marks Darwin’s sixth or seventh birthday.  In his autobiography, Darwin explained that even before he was sent to a day school at the age of 8, his taste for natural history was well developed; he had tried to make out the names of plants, was interested in their variability, and told fantastic fibs about his powers to discern or affect their characters.  

Ellen Sharples was one of a family of artists who specialised in portraiture, especially pastel drawings and miniatures, and had made a name for themselves both in America, where they lived intermittently, and in England. They were longstanding acquaintances of the Darwins – Ellen’s late husband James Sharples had produced a pastel portrait of Erasmus Darwin, which is now in Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery. Ellen was based in Clifton, Bristol, from c.1811 onwards, but left few records of portrait commissions in her diary – being more preoccupied with the career of her artist daughter Rolinda. She presumably travelled to Shrewsbury to draw pastel portraits of members of the Darwin family, which are now on loan to Down House. They are of uniform size, and the English Heritage Collections Review gives the date of all of them as 1816, when Charles would have been just seven; but both children arguably look younger than they would have been then. As well as the portrait of Charles with Catherine, there are extant pastels of his father Robert, and of two of his older siblings – Susan and Erasmus Alvey. Unfortunately Ellen Sharples’s papers in the Bristol Archives appear to throw no light on her contacts with the Darwin family, or on the dates and circumstances relating to these works. 

According to a printed inscription, the original chalk drawing of the Darwin children was, at the time of the 1909 Cambridge exhibition, ‘in the possession of Miss Wedgwood of Leith Hill Place’; i.e. Sophy Wedgwood, daughter of Josiah Wedgwood III – closely related to both Charles and Emma Darwin. A pencil note on the back of the photograph in the Darwin archive records that the drawing passed from Miss Wedgwood to ‘Charles Darwin in Cambridge’, i.e. George Darwin’s son of that name.  

  • physical location Darwin Heirlooms Trust, on loan to English Heritage, Down House, Kent 

  • accession or collection number EH88206579 

  • copyright holder Darwin Heirlooms Trust 

  • originator of image Ellen Sharples 

  • date of creation c. 1816 

  • computer-readable date c. 1816-01-01 to 1816-12-31 

  • medium and material pastel or chalk drawing  

  • references and bibliography ‘University intelligence: the Darwin centenary’, with transcript from the Cambridge University Reporter in Times (12 June 1909), p. 12. Darwin Centenary: The Portraits, Prints and Writings of Charles Robert Darwin, exhibited at Christ’s College, Cambridge, 1909 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1909), p. 18, no. 84. Nora Barlow (ed.), The Autobiography of Charles Darwin (London: Collins, 1958), pp. 22–23. British Association for the Advancement of Science, Historical and Descriptive Catalogue of the Darwin Memorial at Down House (1969), p. 13, no. 22: ‘Darwin aged 6, and his sister Catherine’, photograph of the drawing.  Kathryn Metz, ‘Ellen and Rolinda Sharples: mother and daughter painters’, Woman’s Art Journal, 16:1 (Spring–Summer 1995), pp. 3–11. Julius Bryant (ed.), English Heritage Collections Review, 2 (1999), p. 37, details of loans to Down House from the Darwin Heirlooms Trust. Nicola Temple, ‘A portrait of a boy and his plant’, posted by Andy Winfield on 14 Feb. 2017 on the website of the University of Bristol Botanic Garden,; accessed Dec. 2019. Anna McNay, ‘Ellen Sharples’, Art Quarterly (Autumn 2019), pp. 48–53. Neil Jeffares, Dictionary of Pastellists before 1800, online edition, entry for Ellen Sharples, accessed Dec. 2019. J. van Wyhe, ‘Iconography’, p. 133.  




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