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Darwin Correspondence Project

1.21 window at Christ's College Cambridge

Among the many posthumous commemorations of Darwin is a portrayal of him in stained glass. It is in the oriel window of the Hall at his alma mater, Christ’s College Cambridge – in a bay looking onto the First Court of the College. This dining hall had been remodelled by George Gilbert Scott the younger in the 1870s, but its programme of decoration stretched over many later years. The College’s ‘Agreement Book’, which records the decisions of the Master and Fellows, throws little light on the progress of work in the hall. However, according to an inscription at the base of the oriel window, it commemorates William Mandell Gunson, a former Christ’s College tutor, who died in 1881. The historian of the College, John Peile, writing in 1900, noted that ‘In 1882 and the following years portraits of the founders, of benefactors, and of worthies of the College were placed in the twenty-one lights of the west oriel’. The window was designed and executed by the highly regarded firm of Burlison and Grylls. It must have been finished and installed by mid-1899, when, according to the ’Agreement Book’ (Christ’s College Library, CA/C/6/5), George Frederick Bodley, who had undertaken much building work for the College, was paid for the provision of the wall panelling in the hall and later for gilding of architectural details of its wooden ceiling.  

The window features pairs of full-length figures, the benefactors and luminaries of the College through the centuries, but the arrangement is seemingly not ordered by historical period or vocation. Darwin, at top right, is the only man whose achievements belonged to recent history, and he is shown wearing the academic robes of a Doctor of Laws, in reference to the honorary degree conferred on him by Cambridge University in 1877. He is paired here with William Paley, whose rooms at Christ’s College he had inherited, and whose Evidences of Christianity had been required reading when Darwin was an undergraduate. However, the pairing of the two men also brings into focus the contrast between the natural theology which Darwin inherited from Paley and the evolutionary theories through which he ultimately discredited Paley’s view of the creation. He points to an object held in his left hand – apparently an ape’s skull, the contour of which mischievously echoes that of his own head. 

  • physical location Christ’s College, Cambridge 

  • accession or collection number CC01670 (the Darwin pane of the window) 

  • copyright holder Christ’s College, Cambridge 

  • originators of image John Burlison and Thomas John Grylls 

  • date of creation c.1882–1899 

  • computer-readable date c. 1882 -01-01 to 1899-06-30. 

  • medium and material stained glass 

  • references and bibliography ‘Christ’s College Cambridge: Catalogue of Fellows’ Papers’, item 90 (correspondence and estimates relating to the Hall and Chapel): available online at John Peile, Christ’s College (London: F.E. Robinson, 1900), pp. 31–32. John Van Wyhe, Charles Darwin in Cambridge: The Most Joyful Years (New Jersey: World Scientific, 2014), pp. 120–121. Christ’s College Magazine, 240 (2015), p. 53.  


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