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Darwin Correspondence Project

1.14 William Richmond, oil

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William Blake Richmond’s portrait of Darwin, dating from 1879, celebrated his honorary degree of LL.D (Doctor in Laws), awarded by Cambridge University in 1877. Darwin’s return to his alma mater for the presentation ceremony had been no routine affair. According to the Observer, ‘There was an unusually large assembly in the Senate House . . . and the scene was very animated.’ As Darwin entered the room, he ‘received an ovation from all parts of the house’. The public orator, speaking in Latin, elegantly but speciously adapted Darwin’s theories to ‘a passage of Lucretius’, but the undergraduates crowding the galleries interrupted the proceedings with comic songs and horn-blowing, then dangled the effigy of a monkey wearing a mortarboard and academic gown from cords over Darwin’s head. Whether the students intended to ridicule Darwin’s theory of human descent, or to ridicule the tardiness of the university in publicly accepting it, is difficult to tell; but the uproar is a reminder of the degree of controversy, even notoriety, which still hung around Descent of Man in conservative circles.  

If the Cambridge ceremony was a rather fraught occasion, the commemoration of the award proved equally awkward. It was suggested ‘that the University should not be without some memorial of one of its most distinguished men. This feeling became more widely spread.’ A committee was therefore set up to collect subscriptions from members of the University, with the ornithologist Professor Alfred Newton (one of the first converts to the theory of natural selection) and Professor Sidney Colvin (Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum) as the prime movers. About £400 was raised, and it was then decided to opt for a portrait in oils rather than a bust. William Richmond (son of George Richmond, who had painted the watercolour of Darwin in his youth), received the commission. He was then still in his thirties, but was considered to be a rising talent, able to excel in both historical subjects and portraiture. A protégé of Ruskin, he succeeded him as Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford in this same year.  

In a letter of 18 June 1879, Darwin told Thiselton-Dyer (Hooker’s son-in-law), ‘a confounded painter (I beg his pardon) comes here to-night, and for the next two days I shall be half dead with sitting to him’. Indeed, Helen Lascelles, in an article on Richmond, implied that he found it difficult to establish any personal rapport with Darwin during his time at Down House. His depiction entirely followed the conventions for this kind of public portraiture of distinguished academics. According to the Observer’s reviewer, who saw the painting at the Grosvenor Gallery’s exhibition in 1880, it was a ‘sustained and complete example’ of Richmond’s skill. The Times critic thought it a ‘noble portrait’; Darwin was ‘wearing his crimson doctor’s gown, and reminding us, with his grand philosophic head and long beard, no less than his gorgeous robe, of a portrait by Tintoret [Tintoretto], in the crimson of the Venetian seigniory’. Its reception by the University and the Darwin family was apparently less enthusiastic. Francis Darwin noted, ‘the picture has many admirers, but, according to my own view, neither the attitude nor the expression are characteristic of my father’. When Emma Darwin saw it for the first time on a visit to Cambridge in 1881, she disliked it even more than she disliked the portrait of Darwin by Ouless. She referred to Richmond’s work as ‘the red picture’: ‘I thought it quite horrid, so fierce, so dirty. However, it is under a glass and very high up, so nobody can see it.’ The painting was then hanging in the library of the Philosophical Society, and was still there in 1897, when Atkinson and Clark produced Cambridge Described; but it was later shunted to the Zoology department of the University. Richmond’s image of Darwin never became familiar and popular through replication, as Ouless’s painting and many photographs had done. One can agree with Francis Darwin that Richmond’s likeness is unconvincing, but the strongest impression is of incongruity: the character of Darwin and his unique public persona simply did not fit the mould of institutional, honorific portraiture. A perception of this problem may even have influenced the decision, a year or two later, to commission John Collier for another and very different oil portrait. With Darwin’s death perceived to be not far away, it was desirable to create a more authentic likeness of him than Richmond’s portrait provided – one that could be transmitted as a canonical image to future generations. 

  • physical location Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge 

  • accession or collection number none 

  • copyright holder Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge 

  • originator of image William Blake Richmond 

  • date of creation 1879-80 

  • computer-readable date 1879-06-19 to 1880-04-30 

  • medium and material oil on canvas 

  • references and bibliography ‘University News’, Observer (18 Nov. 1877), p. 6. ‘Mr. Darwin at Cambridge’, Nature (22 Nov. 1877), p. 64, and Cambridge Chronicle and University Journal (Nov. 1877). ‘Mr. Darwin [From the “Manchester Weekly Times” of Saturday]’, Manchester Examiner (25 Nov. 1877), p. 4, in DAR 140.1.50–53. Darwin Memorial, printed leaflet, dated 7 Dec. 1877, in DAR 215.31b. Letters from Darwin to John Fiske, 10 June 1879 (DCP-LETT-12098) and to Thiselton-Dyer, 18 June 1879 (DCP-LETT-12114). ‘The Grosvenor Gallery (First Notice)’, Times (1 May 1880), p. 8. ‘The Grosvenor Gallery’, Observer (2 May 1880), p. 7. ‘The Grosvenor Gallery exhibition’, Manchester Guardian (17 May 1880), p. 5. Francis Darwin (ed.), The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, 3 vols (London: John Murray, 1887, 1888), vol. 3, p. 222, and catalogue of portraits, p. 371. Thomas Dinham Atkinson and John Willis Clark, Cambridge Described and Illustrated: Being a Short History of the Town and University (London: Macmillan and Cambridge: Macmillan and Bowes, 1897), p. 496. ‘H.L.’ [Helen Lascelles], ‘The life and work of Sir W.B. Richmond’, Christmas number of the Art Journal, 1902, p. 31. Francis Darwin and A.C. Seward, More Letters of Charles Darwin, 2 vols (London: John Murray, 1903), vol. 1, pp. 371–372; vol. 2, p. 422. Darwin Centenary: The Portraits, Prints and Writings of Charles Robert Darwin, exhibited at Christ’s College, Cambridge, 1909 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1909), p. 3, no. 7. Henrietta E. Litchfield, Emma Darwin, a Century of Family Letters, 2 vols (London: John Murray, 1915), vol. 2, pp. 230–231, 248–249. J.W. Goodison, Catalogue of Cambridge Portraits I The University Collection (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1955), p. 197, no. 371. Adrian Desmond and James Moore, Darwin (London: Michael Joseph, 1991), p. 630. Janet Browne, Charles Darwin: the Power of Place. Volume II of a Biography (London: Jonathan Cape, 2002), p. 451. Browne, ‘Looking at Darwin: Portraits and the Making of an Icon’, Isis, 100:3 (Sept. 2009), pp. 542–570 (pp. 553–6). John van Wyhe, Charles Darwin in Cambridge: the Most Joyful Years (Hackensack and London: World Scientific Publishing, 2014), pp. 116f. J. van Wyhe, ‘Iconography’, p. 129. 


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