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Darwin Correspondence Project

1.4 Samuel Laurence drawing 1

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Samuel Laurence’s intimate chalk drawing of Darwin is dated 1853. It is likely that Darwin sat for the portrait at Down House, and Francis Darwin, in his catalogue of portraits of his father painted or drawn ‘from life’, noted that it was still in the family’s possession. Another slighter sketch by Laurence, probably done on the same occasion, is now in the Sedgwick Museum, Cambridge. While revealing the overwrought state of Darwin’s mind in the 1850s, Laurence’s drawings are far more gratifying portrayals of him than the studio photographs by Maull and Polyblank, done a year or two later for the ‘Literary and Scientific Portrait Club’. In a letter to Hooker of May 1855, Darwin made an implied comparison between these categories of images. If his facial expression was really as bad as the photographs suggested, he complained, ‘how I can have one single friend is surprising. My Brother [Erasmus] has a large drawing of me by Lawrence [sic], of which he has had some photographs made & no doubt, if anyone really wished, others could be made.’ It is striking that Darwin’s family, including his brother, already sought to protect his public image, to manage the conditions in which he was portrayed and to disseminate only favoured likenesses. Both of Laurence’s drawings were shown in the Darwin Centenary exhibition at Cambridge in 1909; the one now at Down House then belonged to Darwin’s son William, his principal heir. 

Samuel Laurence moved in literary circles and specialised in head-and-shoulders sketch portraits of leading intellectuals and writers, many of them impressive characterisations. According to Frank Miles’s catalogue of Laurence’s works (an unpublished and undated typescript in the National Portrait Gallery archive), his sketches of Darwin were ‘possibly studies for an oil painting intended for the BAAS [British Association for the Advancement of Science]. The project was interrupted by Laurence’s departure to America in 1853, and no more seems to have come of it’. In Miles’s catalogue, the Down House drawing was described as belonging to the BAAS, which for many years owned and administered the house, but his reference to a project for an oil portrait of Darwin by Laurence, destined for the BAAS, remains mysterious. 

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

  • accession or collection number EH88202255 

  • copyright holder Darwin Heirlooms Trust  

  • originator of image Samuel Laurence; signed and dated bottom right 

  • date of creation 1853 

  • computer-readable date 1853-01-01 to 1853-12-31 

  • medium and material black chalk with white heightening on buff paper 

  • references and bibliography Francis Darwin (ed.), The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, 3 vols, vol. 3 (London: John Murray, 1887), appendix 3, p. 371. Darwin Centenary: The Portraits, Prints and Writings of Charles Robert Darwin, exhibited at Christ’s College, Cambridge, 1909 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1909), p. 5, no. 18. Frank Miles, typescript catalogue of the portraits of Samuel Laurence (undated and unpaginated) in the National Portrait Gallery library, M5 1950. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, article on Samuel Laurence by Robert Edmund Graves. Julius 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), p. 43. A mounted photographic print of Laurence’s drawing is in the Darwin Archive, Cambridge University Library, DAR 225.127. 

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