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Darwin Correspondence Project

1.2 George Richmond, marriage portrait

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Few likenesses of Darwin in his youth survive, although more may once have existed. In a letter of 1873 an old Shrewsbury friend, Arthur Mostyn Owen, offered to send Darwin a watercolour sketch of him, painted many years earlier by Arthur’s sister Fanny, who had been Darwin’s first sweetheart. This portrait would have dated from his university years, before the Beagle voyage. However, Darwin seemingly declined Mostyn Owen’s offer, and the fate of Fanny’s watercolour is unknown.  

Thus the surviving portraits of Darwin as a young man – other than cartoon drawings – postdate the Beagle years. A matching pair of watercolour portraits by George Richmond, now at Down House, celebrated his marriage in January 1839 to his cousin Emma Wedgwood; the one of Darwin is signed and dated 1840. Their style is characteristic of Richmond, a prolific portraitist, in its freshness and fluency. He was a fine, classically-trained draughtsman, able to combine a convincing likeness of the sitter with an element of flattery in features and dress – in this case, appropriate to the occasion. The contemporary estimate of Richmond’s work can be gauged from a letter which Hooker wrote to Darwin some years later, complaining, with pretended chagrin, about his own facial features, and the difficulty which portraitists found in representing him: ‘Poor Richmond who generally knocks off his chalk heads in 2 sittings gave me 8 & grumbled all the time’, finding ‘nothing salient, nothing to idealize upon’. But despite this tendency to prettify, Richmond registered Darwin’s receding hairline, and the intensity of his gaze. Darwin was then actually in a state of heightened excitement and anxiety over the secret development of his evolutionary theories.  

As early as February 1839, Elizabeth Wedgwood had written to her sister Emma: ‘My father says he should like to have a drawing of you, which I am very glad of. Is Mr. Richmond come back? – i.e. from Italy – or would a portrait by Holmes be preferable?’ Emma in response promised, ‘I will go and get it done when you have settled who is best’. In the event Richmond did not return from Italy until August or September 1839. Josiah Wedgwood himself wrote to his daughter Emma in 1840, asking her to commission Richmond on his behalf to portray herself, her sisters Charlotte and Elizabeth and her sisters-in-law. However, it seems that the pair of portraits dating from 1840 which is now at Down House had a Darwin family provenance. After Susan Darwin – sister of Charles and Erasmus – died in 1866, Erasmus, who was clearing out her house, wrote to Charles to explain that he was arranging ‘to send you Richmond’s pictures of self and Emma’: ‘self’ presumably means Charles, and ‘pictures’ suggests finished watercolours rather than drawings, indicating the 1840 pair now at Down House. 

Raymond Lister, author of George Richmond: A Critical Biography, had access to a manuscript ‘index catalogue of the works of George Richmond’ belonging to the artist’s descendants, and from this he established the dates of various Darwin family commissions. In 1840 there were indeed entries (unpriced) for portraits of ‘Mr Darwin’ (presumably Charles, since a surviving watercolour portrait of his brother Erasmus was entered separately at £31 10s.) and ‘Mrs. Darwin’, and this must be the Down House pair. However, Darwin’s account book records that he had already paid Richmond twelve guineas for a portrait of some kind in December 1839, and a further payment of twelve guineas for a second portrait of ‘Mrs Charles Darwin’ followed in 1842. Perhaps this suggests that a second pair of portraits was being assembled, so that both the Darwin and the Wedgwood families would have one. It is difficult to relate this documentary data to the various copies or alternative versions of the 1840 portraits which exist. A watercolour which is very similar in format and composition to the documented 1840 portrait of Darwin is also at Down House (EH88202068). The reproduction of another drawing that Professor Albert Seward discovered ‘in a portfolio of Darwin relics in the cellar of the Cambridge Botany School in 1929’ (EH88204449) was reproduced as the frontispiece to Nora Barlow’s edition of Darwin’s Beagle diary in 1933: she thought it might be a preliminary sketch for Richmond’s watercolour, but to the present writer it looks more like an inexpert copy from the latter.     

Evidence for the history of the Down House portraits after they were removed from Susan Darwin’s house in 1866 is also confusing. On the occasion of the Darwin Centenary exhibition at Cambridge in 1909, Henrietta Litchfield, Darwin’s daughter, lent Richmond’s watercolour drawings of Charles and Emma, with a note that the one of Charles had an inscription on the back of the frame, ‘Charles Robert Darwin age 31 March 1840’; but she mysteriously described it as unsigned. Henrietta also here dated the portrait of her mother – the only one she knew about – to 1840. However, in Emma Darwin: A Century of Family Letters (volume 1, 1904 edition), where it appears as the frontispiece, she had dated it to 1839; and, puzzlingly, she said there that it belonged to her brother William, not to herself: did he give it to her subsequently? Francis Darwin, in Life and Letters, simply indicated that George Richmond’s portrait of his father belonged to ‘The Family’ – helpfully adding a date of 1838, when Richmond was in Italy!  

  • physical location Darwin Heirlooms Trust, on loan to English Heritage, Down House 

  • accession or collection number EH88206573  

  • copyright holder Darwin Heirlooms Trust 

  • originator of image George Richmond; signed and dated bottom right ‘G. Richmond 1840’ 

  • date of creation March 1840 

  • computer-readable date 1840-03-01 to 1840-03-31 

  • medium and material chalk and watercolour on paper 

  • references and bibliography Inga Fraser of English Heritage has provided invaluable information on the portraits at Down. Down House MSS, Darwin’s account books, entry for Dec. 1839. Joseph Hooker, letter to Darwin, 17 March 1862 (DCP-LETT-3474). Erasmus Darwin, letter to Charles, 11 Oct. [1866] (DCP-LETT-5238). Arthur Mostyn Owen, letters to Darwin, 21 and 28 May, 1873 (DCP-LETT-8917 and DCP-LETT-8926). Francis Darwin (ed.), The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, 3 vols (London: John Murray, 1887), vol. 3, p. 371. Henrietta Litchfield (ed.), Emma Darwin: A Century of Family Letters, 1792–1896 (London: John Murray, 1904), frontispiece and p. xv; also 1915 edition, vol. 1, p. 61; vol. 2, pp. 31, 33. Darwin Centenary: The Portraits, Prints and Writings of Charles Robert Darwin, exhibited at Christ’s College, Cambridge, 1909 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1909), p. 4, nos. 10 and 11. Nora Barlow (ed.), Charles Darwin’s Diary of the Voyage of H.M.S. ‘Beagle’ (New York: Macmillan and Cambridge: University Press, 1933), frontispiece. Barbara and Hensleigh Wedgwood, The Wedgwood Circle 1730–1897: Four Generations of a Family (London: Studio Vista, 1980), p. 238 and plate 66. Raymond Lister, George Richmond: A Critical Biography (London: Robin Garton, 1981), pp. 25, 62, 156, and article on Richmond by Lister in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Julius Bryant, English Heritage Collections Review, 2 (1999), p. 37. Janet Browne, ‘Looking at Darwin: portraits and the making of an icon’, Isis, 100:3 (Sept. 2009), pp. 542–570 (pp. 551-2). Bryant, ‘Darwin at home: observation and taste at Down House’, in Diana Donald and Jane Munro (eds), Endless Forms: Charles Darwin, Natural Science and the Visual Arts (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009), pp. 29–46 (pp. 32–3). J. van Wyhe, ‘Iconography’, p. 134, says that Erasmus Darwin retained the 1840 watercolours in his own collection in London, and that they went to Down only after Erasmus’s death in 1881; this seemingly conflicts with the indications in Erasmus’s letter of 1866, quoted above.   


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