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Darwin Correspondence Project

1.12 Marian Huxley, drawing

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Portrayals of Darwin by women in his social circle cannot be lumped together as the products of adoring amateurs. In 1878 he was sketched by Marian (‘Mady’) Huxley, who was then only in her late teens, but already a trained and accomplished artist. This is her only recorded portrait of Darwin: a quick and not unflattering pencil sketch, which shows him turning in his chair in a relaxed way, as though to look at some object of interest.  

Marian was the daughter of Thomas Huxley, who was one of Darwin’s closest friends. Huxley himself was very interested in the visual arts, and painted watercolours of some of the views he saw when journeying abroad. Many leading academy painters were frequent visitors to the Huxley household. It is therefore not surprising that Marian was encouraged to study at the Slade School of Art from her early teens (she won several prizes there); nor that in 1879 she had parental blessing for her marriage to an artist, the Hon. John Collier, who was later to create a classic image of Darwin. Marian’s paintings were certainly not pale imitations of her husband’s, but, on the contrary, were often more adventurous and modern than his. Her picture An artist at work, exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1883, portrayed John Collier in his studio, painting her; the work on the easel is close to one of his actual portraits of Marian, but she has reversed the profile so that she seems to face her husband. Reviewers were startled by the ‘unconventional‘ style of the work, especially the visual interplay between the figure and the surrounding objects, in place of the dark subordinated background that was normal in academic portraiture. In the flattening of space, fragmentation of forms, and predominance of colour over tone, Marian displayed an awareness of contemporary French painting, for example portraits by Degas, which contrasts strongly with John Collier’s old-masterish idiom. Yet, as Valerie Sanders has shown, she was still spoken of as ‘an amateur artist’, debarred from important public commissions: the slightness and informality of her sketches of Darwin, Huxley and some other male writers and intellectuals confirmed her restriction to the private domestic sphere.  

The subjective element in Marian Collier’s work would certainly have precluded any commission to paint a public image of Darwin – even if she had not already offended the female members of the Darwin family by her moody unsociability. In any case, a few years later, Marian – always mentally unstable - became seriously ill with depression, and from c.1887 onwards developed a form of dementia. She died in France, from pneumonia, on the way to the Salpêtrière hospital, where she was to have been treated by the famous neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot. She was then only in her late twenties.  

The drawing of Darwin is dateable to 1878 from an inscription on the original mount (now lost). It remained in Marian Collier’s possession, and was apparently mounted in a scrap album, along with drawings of Huxley, the historian Lecky and others. It was bought by the National Portrait Gallery from Marian’s daughter Joyce (Mrs Kilburn) in 1943. The latter believed that more evidence about it might be contained in Huxley’s papers, now at Imperial College London.  


  • physical location National Portrait Gallery, London 

  • accession or collection number NPG 3144 

  • copyright holder National Portrait Gallery 

  • originator of image Marian Collier, née Huxley; signed in monogram bottom right ‘MH’ 

  • date of creation 1878 

  • computer-readable date 1878-01-01 to 1878-12-31  

  • medium and material pencil drawing 

  • references and bibliography National Portrait Gallery registered packet, containing correspondence relating to Marian Collier’s sketch of Darwin and its acquisition by the NPG. Adrian Desmond, Huxley: Evolution’s High Priest (London: Michael Joseph, 1997), pp. 22–23, 55, 107, 120, 129, 140–141, 155, 175–176. Janet Browne, Charles Darwin: The Power of Place. Volume II of a Biography (London: Jonathan Cape, 2002), pp. 487–488. Valerie Sanders, ‘”Mady’s tightrope walk”: the career of Marian Huxley Collier’, in Kyriaki Hadjiafxendi and Patricia Zakreski (eds), Crafting the Woman Professional in the Long Nineteenth Century: Artistry and Industry in Britain (Farnham: Ashgate, 2013), pp. 227–242. Biographical information in the National Portrait Gallery’s online extended entry for NPG 6811, Marian Collier’s portrait of John Collier in his studio.    


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