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Darwin Correspondence Project

1.11 Laura Russell, oil

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This little oil portrait of Darwin was painted by Laura Russell, daughter of Jules, vicomte de Peyronnet. She was married to Arthur Russell, MP for Tavistock; he was one of the sons of Lord William Russell, and his elder brother became the ninth Duke of Bedford and Marquess of Tavistock. Sir Mountstuart Grant Duff described Arthur Russell as an open-minded and highly cultivated man, ‘a strong liberal’, who, among many public responsibilities, ‘served a good deal on the Council of the Linnean and Zoological Societies.’ Laura Russell herself struck Grant Duff as having a certain ‘apartness’ – a reticence and interest in intellectual matters that differentiated her from the merely fashionable women of the time. The couple were friends of Edward Stanley, fifteenth Earl of Derby, whose mansion Holwood House was at Keston, only a few miles from Downe; the Darwins themselves were frequent visitors there. Sir John Lubbock and his family were further members of this circle in the vicinity of Downe. All had an informed interest in natural science, and were ardent admirers of Darwin’s achievements. In 1882, Arthur Russell would be among the signatories to Lubbock’s petition for Darwin to be buried in Westminster Abbey. Laura Russell’s portrait of Darwin thus symbolises the close alliances that sometimes developed between the intelligentsia – the scientific aristocracy – and the aristocracy of blood in Victorian Britain.   

The fact that Arthur Russell was MP for Tavistock in Devon, and patron of many local enterprises, had already given Laura opportunities to develop her skills as an amateur artist. She made copies in oils of some of the Russell family portraits at Woburn, and eight of these copies were hung in the newly built Town Hall at Tavistock, together with her portraits of two previous Tavistock MPs, Sir John Trelawny and George Byng, 3rd Earl of Strafford and Viscount Enfield. The Russells stayed with the Earl of Derby at Holwood House in the summer of 1869, when Laura was eight months pregnant with her daughter Flora. They visited Down House several times, and gained Darwin’s agreement to sit for a portrait by Laura. A label on the stretcher of the canvas establishes that it was painted on 23 August 1869, at Down House ‘from nature’. It has the naturalism and freshness of a first-hand study, while bringing out Darwin’s capacity for deep thought. The painting has remained in the possession of the Russell family, and was not mentioned by Francis Darwin in his listing of portraits of his father ‘taken from life’ in Life and Letters

  • physical location private collection, USA 

  • accession or collection number unknown 

  • copyright holder the unknown owner 

  • originator of image Laura Russell 

  • date of creation 23 August 1869 

  • computer-readable date 1869-08-23 

  • medium and material oil on canvas 

  • references and bibliography Much information kindly provided by Randal Keynes. Rt. Hon. Sir Mountstuart E. Grant Duff, Out of the Past: Some Biographical Essays, 2 vols (London: John Murray, 1903), vol. II, pp. 112–128. Diana Donald and Jane Munro (eds), Endless Forms: Charles Darwin, Natural Science and the Visual Arts (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009), half-title page and p. iv. Janet Browne, ‘Looking at Darwin: portraits and the making of an icon’, Isis, 100:3 (Sept. 2009), pp. 542–570 (p. 564). Information about the Tavistock Town Hall portraits at, and at, both accessed in January 2020. 





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