skip to content

Darwin Correspondence Project

1.18 John Collier, oil in Linnean

By 1881 it was clear to Darwin’s intimates that he was increasingly frail, and that, as he approached death, he had finally escaped from religious controversy to become a heroic figure, loved and venerated for his achievements by the public at large. It was therefore a matter of urgency to fashion a definitive image of him – one that could be transmitted to posterity as a faithful and worthy likeness. While there were numerous photographs of Darwin in these last years, they lacked the monumentality that a painting alone could provide. However, the existing oil portraits of him were unsuited to a commemorative function. Ouless’s characterisation of Darwin as an introspective and melancholy philosopher did not offer communication with the spectator, while William Richmond’s portrait of him in academic robes failed to convey either his personal character or his unique identity as a thinker.  

George Romanes and other members of Darwin’s circle therefore gained his agreement to sit for a new portrait – Romanes impressing on him that it would be ‘of so much historical importance’. It was to be financed by subscription, and donated to the Linnean Society. Darwin’s evolutionary theory had first been made known to the world at a meeting of the Linnean Society in 1858. Moreover, the Society was now, in May 1881, dominated by Darwinians. Its President was Sir John Lubbock; Romanes was its Zoological Secretary; and Darwin’s son Francis was a member of the Council. Darwin himself wrote to Romanes on 27 May to say that, while he found sitting for portraits tiring, ‘I shd be the most ungrateful & ungracious dog not to agree cordially’; but he insisted that Romanes was not to tout officiously for subscriptions. ‘If I am to sit, it would be a pity not to sit to a good artist, and from all that I have heard I believe Mr Collier is a very good one’, as his recent portrait of Joseph Hooker testified. Moreover, Darwin would ‘most particularly desire to sit to Huxley’s son-in-law, if, as you say, he would like to paint me’. The Hon. John Collier’s marriage to Huxley’s daughter Marian had made him a member of the Darwinian set, with sympathy for Darwin’s ideas, and an informed interest in science in general: his later book, The Religion of an Artist (1926), shows him entirely attuned to Darwin’s theories on the origins of the human conscience and morality. As the well-educated son of Sir Robert Collier, first Lord Monkswell, Collier was a good conversationalist, at ease with his intellectual sitters. Like the photographs taken by Darwin’s son Leonard, Collier’s painting could thus achieve an insight born of intimacy, and was almost guaranteed to promulgate an image of him that the family would approve.  

According to an interview which Collier gave many years later to a Singaporean newspaper, the sittings took place in Darwin’s study at Down House – the larger room into which he had recently moved. ‘In my mind, however, I associate him always with nature which he loved and wished to understand. And I shall never forget the frankness with which he was willing to discuss with me his own work and any other subject that cropped up.’ On 7 August 1881 Darwin was able to report to Romanes that the painting was finished, and ‘All my family who have seen it think it the best likeness which has been taken of me, and, as far as I can judge, this seems true’ – Romanes agreed. Darwin added that Collier ‘was the most considerate, kind, and pleasant painter a sitter could desire’. As a further sign of their rapport, Collier later gave Darwin a copy of his newly published Primer on Art, and received a pleasant letter of thanks. Darwin assured Collier that everyone who had seen the portrait was delighted by it, and he would be proud to see himself ‘suspended at the Linnean Society’. In the event, he did not live to see the picture put in place in the Meeting Room there. It ‘was about to be hung in the rooms of the society’ in April 1882, when his death was announced, and thenceforth became, not a tribute to a living celebrity, but a commemoration of him. As such, Collier’s image was very widely reproduced in the years that followed – the first engraving of it, authorised by the artist, being that by L.J. Flameng.  

It had never been likely that this important commission would go to one of the more adventurous and idiosyncratic portraitists of the day, such as Sargent or Whistler. However, Collier, while criticised as a history painter, had a reputation for straightforward truth to nature in portraits – ‘calm common sense of representation’, according to the Times reviewer – and he turned out to be the perfect choice. Darwin is seen in frontal view, with light coming from above (an arrangement favoured by Collier), emphasising the dome of his head, and catching his shoulder and hand, while all else is thrown into degrees of shade. There is nothing to distract from the benign but penetrating expression of Darwin’s eyes, with a highlighted wisp of his shaggy eyebrows enhancing the impression of immediacy and verisimilitude. Francis Darwin could see something ‘almost painful’ in this expression: it was true to life, but he thought Collier had overstressed it. Darwin’s frontal presentation and his intense forward gaze are actually reminiscent of the self-portraits of artists such as Tintoretto and Rembrandt, which were certainly known to Collier – as though Darwin were portraying himself, without any intermediate agency. He is pictured as a wholly independent and unique thinker, whose characterisation apparently stands in no need of stylistic guile on the part of the artist, nor any accessories to identify his calling, nor tokens of public honours. He is wearing his familiar outdoor dress, a heavy cape and soft felt hat (also seen in the late photographs, with which Collier’s image has a symbiotic relationship), and is pictured as wholly free from worldly pretension. Study of nature ‘which he loved and wished to understand’, in Collier’s words, is shown to be the sole foundation of all his scientific achievements – and of Collier’s portrayal.  

However, this was the art that concealed art. In his book The Art of Portrait Painting (1905), based on a lecture given c.1895, Collier was dismissive of modern approaches to portraiture, ‘the prevailing torrent of slop’ and meaningless abstraction; he considered their products much inferior to the noble works of Titian, Velasquez and Rembrandt. Venetian male portraits of the Renaissance period, in particular, were responsive to ‘human beauty and dignity . . . robust and magnificent’. In emulating the compositions, light effects and rich brushwork of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century portraitists, Collier also implicitly situated Darwin in history, and removed him from the arena of present-day scientific disputes. Yet contemporaries saw nothing in this painting but a moving truth to nature. By the time it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in May 1882, Darwin was already dead. Speaking at the Academy banquet, William Spottiswoode, President of the Royal Society, remarked that he came ‘almost fresh from the grave of our greatest philosopher and noblest spirit . . . But the feeling which is at the moment uppermost in our minds is that we have lost our friend, that we have lost the man’. Hence he felt that it was art’s primary purpose ‘to preserve to us living likenesses of those whom we have lost. Never was this function more keenly needed, never was it better performed than in the portrait which to-day hangs on your walls. (Hear, hear.) For this you have the thanks of the scientific world.’ 

  • physical location Linnean Society 

  • accession or collection number OP/D/1 (persistent identifier C29910) 

  • copyright holder Linnean Society 

  • originator of image John Collier 

  • date of creation 1881 

  • computer-readable date 1881-07-01 to 1881-08-31 

  • medium and material oil on canvas 

  • references and bibliography Linnean catalogue record at Linnean Society archive, manuscript letter LL/8, Darwin to Romanes, 27 May 1881. Correspondence between Darwin and Collier in 1882, DCP-LETT-13689 and DCP-LETT-13701. Letter from Darwin to his son George, 23 July 1881, telling him the picture was finished (DCP-LETT-13252). ‘The Royal Academy Banquet’, Times (1 May 1882), p. 7. ‘Fine arts and music. Royal Academy – first notice’, supplement to The Guardian, no. 1900 (3 May 1882), p. 629, in DAR 140.5.101. Reviews of the Royal Academy exhibition, Observer (7 May 1882), p. 2, and Times (13 May 1882), p. 5. ‘Death of Mr. Darwin’, Daily Telegraph (21 April 1882), p. 5. John Collier, A Primer of Art (London: Macmillan, 1882). Collier, A Manual of Oil Painting (London etc.: Cassell, 1886). Francis Darwin (ed.), The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, 3 vols (London: John Murray, 1887), vol. 3, pp. 222–3, 371.  Ethel Romanes, The Life and Letters of George John Romanes, 2nd ed. (London etc.: Longmans, Green, 1896), pp. 118–121, correspondence between Romanes and Darwin in 1881 (DCP-LETT-13173, 13229, 13282). Francis Darwin and A.C. Seward (eds), More Letters of Charles Darwin, 2 vols (London: John Murray, 1903), vol. 1, pp. 398–9. Collier, The Art of Portrait Painting (London etc.: Cassell, 1905), pp. 7, 9–10, 14–18, 35. Walter Herries Pollock, ‘The art of the Hon. John Collier’, Art Annual 1914. John Collier, The Religion of an Artist (London: Watts & Co., 1926). ‘When Shaw posed for a portrait. Darwin and Huxley. Famous artist on celebrities he has painted’, interview with John Collier in The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (15 August 1930), p. 18.  ‘Mr John Collier: Stories in Pictures’, obituary in the Times (12 April 1934), p. 17. Andrew Thomas Gage and William Thomas Stearn, A Bicentenary History of the Linnean Society of London (London: Academic Press, 1988), pp. 64, 190. Janet Browne, Charles Darwin: The Power of Place. Part II of a Biography (London: Jonathan Cape, 2002), pp. 487-8. Browne, ‘Presidential address. Commemorating Darwin’, British Journal for the History of Science, 38:3 (Sept. 2005), pp. 251–274 (pp. 262–263). Patricia Fara, ‘Framing the evidence: scientific biography and portraiture’, in Thomas Söderqvist (ed.), The History and Poetics of Scientific Biography (Burlington, Vermont: Ashgate, 2007), pp. 71–91 (pp. 84–87). Browne, ‘Looking at Darwin: portraits and the making of an icon’, Isis, 100:3 (Sept. 2009), pp. 542–570 (pp. 556–560). Paul van Helvert and J. van Wyhe, Darwin: A Companion (New Jersey: World Scientific, 2021), entry for John Collier, p. 56, and ‘Iconography’, pp. 129–130.   


In this section: