skip to content

Darwin Correspondence Project

1.19 John Collier, oil in NPG

< Back to Introduction

Very soon after the delivery of Collier’s portrait of Darwin to the Linnean Society, Darwin’s eldest son William decided to commission a replica to add to the family collection of pictures, which he had inherited. The new version was signed at bottom left ‘John Collier Replica 1883’, but in fact it was not an exact copy of the Linnean’s picture. As William Darwin later explained to Lionel Cust, the recently appointed Curator of the National Portrait Gallery, ‘I took some trouble about it, and as a likeness it is an improvement on the original . . . I got Collier to make this replica less ruddy than the original, also the eyes are bluish with a trace of green, and not brownish as in the other . . . no portrait could be more like the person represented than this is.’  Perhaps it was too like his father to live with comfortably – the eyes focused with disconcerting intensity on William and his household.  On 16 December 1895 William wrote to his brother George – next in line for the family inheritance – to suggest that the painting should be donated to the National Portrait Gallery. He would be sad to lose it, but, William wrote, ‘I feel it a great loss that the present generation should have no public portrait of him . . . The Collier from its size is much more fitted for a public gallery than any ordinary sized room, & my staircase seems hardly a worthy place for it.’ George could perhaps ‘ask Mother what she thinks’. Emma or George evidently demurred, and may have suggested moving the painting to Down House rather than parting with it. William therefore wrote to George again on 2 January 1896, to point out that, even at Down, only the staircase could comfortably accommodate a painting on this scale, and anyway ‘the chance of any of us or the children finally settling at Down is most remote’. If the Collier portrait were given to the nation, the family would still have the portrait by Ouless, which William would bequeath to George and his heirs. 

On that same day in January 1896, William wrote to Cust to offer the Collier portrait, and it was gratefully accepted. In fact, as far back as April 1882, Sir John Everett Millais, then one of the NPG’s Directors, had written unofficially to Collier himself, to inquire whether the first version of the portrait, destined for the Linnean Society, might instead go to the NPG. As only portraits of deceased individuals were admitted to the NPG’s collections, this would have been the earliest opportunity to acquire one of Darwin. By 1895-6, the Gallery’s move to its spacious new building in St Martin’s Place had advanced the project of creating a national pantheon, where portraits of all the country’s great men could be arrayed. A press report of the opening on 4 April 1896 indicated that there were already 1040 exhibits. Awareness of the rapid growth of the collection must have weighed with William Darwin, who in his letter to George of December 1895, had urged a quick decision about donation of Collier’s picture: ‘There is one argument for doing it now, that as the new gallery is only just being opened there is a good chance of its being put in a good position.’ William may have known that fifteen of G.F. Watts’s ‘hall of fame’ portraits of nineteenth-century celebrities had already gone to the gallery, with more promised. Moreover, Pickersgill’s impressive three-quarter-length portrait of Darwin’s enemy Richard Owen had entered the NPG’s collection in 1893: pre-eminence should not be conceded to Owen by absence of his superior.   

The version of Collier’s portrait which entered the NPG became better known than the first version in the Linnean Society’s building. William’s action was justified when Henry Wheatley gave the painting a place of honour with a half-tone reproduction in his Historical Portraits of 1897, a work which drew greatly on the NPG’s collection; Wheatley thereby situated both Collier and Darwin in the nation’s illustrious history. Over the years the painting took on iconic status; it was endlessly reproduced in prints and photogravures etc., and even appeared on cigarette cards, such as Ogden’s series of ‘Leaders of Men’ and later, in the 1930s, in Carreras’s series of ‘Celebrities of British History’ (Mohr collection, Huntington Library). Collier himself was to produce at least two more replicas of the image, as recorded in his manuscript ‘Register of Paintings’, one being for the Athenaeum Club in 1924. Sir Buckston Browne commissioned one for Down House in 1928–9 (EH88202263). In both cases, replicas of Collier’s portrait of his father-in-law, Thomas Huxley, accompanied the Darwin replicas, as pendants. In 1905 John Lewis Reilly painted a replica of the head and shoulders from Collier’s portrait of Darwin, and this reduced version is also at Down. The copy of Collier’s portrait of Darwin at the Royal Society was painted by Mabel Messer in c.1912, and acquired in 1916. There are also undocumented copies at Christ’s College Cambridge, and in the Royal College of Surgeons. 

  • physical location National Portrait Gallery, London 

  • accession or collection number NPG 1024 

  • copyright holder National Portrait Gallery 

  • originator of image John Collier 

  • date of creation 1883 

  • computer-readable date 1883-01-01 to 1883-12-31 

  • medium and material oil on canvas 

  • references and bibliography ‘Register of paintings of the Hon. John Collier’, photocopy of the artist’s manuscript record or ledger, National Portrait Gallery archive, NPG 110348. Letter from Millais to Collier, and letters from William Darwin to his brother George, also between William Darwin and Lionel Cust: all in National Portrait Gallery archive, registered packet 1024. ‘The new National Portrait Gallery and some of its treasures’, Graphic, 53:1375 (4 April 1896), pp. 407-410. Henry B. Wheatley, Historical Portraits: Some Notes on the Painted Portraits of Celebrated Characters of England, Scotland and Ireland (London: George Bell, 1897), pp. 221-2. William Le Fanu, A Catalogue of the Portraits and Other Paintings, Drawings and Sculptures in the Royal College of Surgeons of England (Edinburgh and London: E. & S. Livingstone, 1960), p. 23, no. 65. Norman H. Robinson, The Royal Society: Catalogue of Portraits (London: the Royal Society, 1980), pp. 78-9. Hugh Tait and Richard Walker, The Athenaeum Collection (London: 2000), pp. 25-6, no. 206 (but giving the date of acquisition of Collier’s replica as 1929). Janet Browne, ‘Presidential address: Commemorating Darwin’, British Journal for the History of Science, 38:3 (Sept. 2005), pp. 251-274 (p. 263). A sale, Valuable Books and Manuscripts, at Christie’s, London, on 15 December 2021 included (lot 114) an undated cigarette card reproducing Collier’s portrait, published by Nicolas Sarony & Co., London. See also other references and bibliography for the first version of the portrait at the Linnean Society.  


In this section: