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Darwin Correspondence Project

1.6 Ouless oil portrait

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The first commissioned oil portrait of Darwin was painted by Walter William Ouless, who was given sittings at Down House in March 1875. The idea for such a portrait came from Darwin’s son William, who as far back as 1872 had written confidentially to his sister Henrietta about his plans. At that stage William was hoping to commission the eminent artist George Frederic Watts to paint Darwin at Down. ‘The expense will not be more than £500 and if F.[Father] jibbs, I am game to pay it.’ Watts was famed not only as a painter of grandiose allegorical subjects, but as a distinguished portrait painter who was creating a ‘House of Fame’ – a series of portrayals of leading men and women of the day, many of which subsequently entered the collections of the National Portrait Gallery. Watts was in fact a great admirer of Darwin, and painted an allegory of Evolution (1898–1904) as a fecund but troubled ‘Earthmother’. Watts believed that scientists of Darwin’s stature inhabited a ‘kingdom of infinite wonder – larger than that of the poet or artist’. Despite this, the idea that he should portray Darwin came to nothing. Watts’s widow, in her biography of her husband, explained that he always ‘deeply regretted that he had not been able to paint the great scientist’. Darwin ‘was not well enough to move to London, and Signor [Watts] was not sure if he went to Down to paint him, as he was invited to do, that he might not himself be laid up with an illness’. There may have been more reasons for this impasse than such practical problems. Darwin was always wary of plans to make his likeness part of a larger scheme of collective commemoration, and Watts’s style may have been too idiomatic or subjective to please all members of the Darwin family. Nevertheless the challenges presented to any artist by Darwin’s physical and psychological state at this time should not be underestimated. Ouless, the chosen painter, apparently reported to a friend while his portrait was in progress that Darwin was ‘a most difficult man to get a sitting from, owing to his infirmities’.  

Ouless was at the beginning of his career – not yet thirty – when he was commissioned to paint Darwin, but he was already valued for the sober verisimilitude of his portraits. When the resulting picture was shown at the Royal Academy in May 1875, the Times reviewer noted Ouless’s gift for likenesses, and the ‘simplicity and force’ of his characterisation of Darwin; the Observer’s critic even wrote of ‘Mr. Ouless’s rather hard matter-of-fact head’ of Darwin. However, Darwin himself saw more in the portrait than just literal resemblance, remarking to Hooker that Ouless had made him look like ‘a very venerable, acute melancholy old dog, – whether I really look so I do not know’. Ouless was indeed conscious that Darwin was no longer viewed by the public simply as a controversial theorist, but, in the words of a writer in the Popular Science Monthly in February 1873, as ‘the most eminent philosophic naturalist of the age’. The aura of profound, unworldly thoughtfulness emanating from the photographs of Darwin taken by Julia Margaret Cameron and by his own son Leonard had helped to create an image of him as a grave philosopher – perhaps a philosopher who pondered the saddening aspects of his own arduously-established scientific truths. This impression is heightened in Ouless’s portrait by the spotlighting of Darwin’s ‘very venerable’ bearded head against a dark background, an effect which the artist certainly took from paintings by Rembrandt and his workshop – paintings that might be either simple portraits like the Portrait of a bald old man of c.1630 at Kassel, or representations of wise Old Testament patriarchs and world-weary prophets. As in many of these seventeenth-century paintings, Darwin’s head is lit from the further side, thus accentuating the noble contour of his head, and casting his left eye and temple into expressive shadow. Darwin’s dark-coloured, loose-fitting clothes are precisely like those shown in the Vanity Fair laughing caricature of him a few years earlier, but the characterisation could not be more different. 

Like another portrayal of Darwin privately commissioned by his family – Woolner’s bust – Ouless’s painting did not satisfy all of its members. Francis Darwin considered it ‘the finest representation’ of his father that had been produced, but others preferred John Collier’s portrait of 1881 for the Linnean Society. Emma Darwin, always difficult to please where portraits of her husband were concerned, saw only ‘roughness & dismality’ in Ouless’s image. Nevertheless, the portrait remained for many years in the Darwin family’s possession. Darwin in his will had left all the family pictures to his eldest son William, who lent Ouless’s painting to the Darwin Centenary exhibition in 1909. Sad to say, it was also among the portraits of Darwin ‘exhibited by William E. and Leonard Darwin’ at the First International Eugenics Congress in 1912. Later it passed to Darwin College, Cambridge, on permanent loan. It was reproduced in a much-admired etching by Paul Rajon, and in 1883 Ouless painted a replica of the oil as a commemorative work for Darwin’s alma mater, Christ’s College, Cambridge. It can be seen hanging on the end wall of the hall in a photograph illustrating Peile’s history of the College, published in 1900. There were many other derivatives, including a wood engraving, which gives the portrait an ornate frame bafflingly inscribed ‘Chas. Robert Darwin/ Painting by G.F. Watts’.  

  • physical location Darwin College, University of Cambridge, loaned by the Darwin Heirlooms Trust 

  • accession or collection number not known 

  • copyright holder Darwin Heirlooms Trust 

  • originator of image Walter William Ouless 

  • date of creation March 1875 

  • computer-readable date 1875-03-01 to 1875-03-29   

  • medium and material oil on canvas 

  • references and bibliography letter of 1872 from William Darwin to Henrietta Litchfield, DAR 219.8.29, and letter from Charles Darwin to Joseph Hooker, 30 March [1875], DCP-LETT-9905. ‘The Royal Academy’, Times (1 May 1875), p. 12. ‘The Royal Academy exhibition’, Observer (9 May 1875), p. 5. Undated letter from E.A. Waterton to ‘Dollman’, evidently a friend of the sculptor Hope Pinker, explaining the difficulties that Ouless had encountered in portraying Darwin (Hope Pinker archive at the Royal Academy, London, HRHP/LPM/UVW39). Francis Darwin (ed.), The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, 3 vols (London: John Murray, 1887), vol. 3, pp. 195, 223. John Peile, Christ’s College (London: F.E. Robinson, 1900), plate 6, facing p. 228. Henrietta Litchfield, Emma Darwin vol. 2 (1904), p. 273. Darwin Centenary: The Portraits, Prints and Writings of Charles Robert Darwin, exhibited at Christ’s College, Cambridge, 1909 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1909), pp. 3-4, no. 8. ‘List of exhibits . . . exhibited by William E. and Leonard Darwin’, First International Eugenics Congress, London, July 24th to July 30th, 1912; University of London, South Kensington, Catalogue of the Exhibition (London: Charles Knight, [1912]), p. 1, B1. Mary S. Watts, George Frederic Watts: Annals of an Artist’s Life, 3 vols (London: Macmillan, 1912), vol. 1, pp. 203–204; vol. 2, p. 142. ‘Mr. W.W. Ouless, R.A.; a distinguished portrait painter’, Times (27 December 1933), p. 12. ‘The late Mr. W.W. Ouless, R.A.’, Nature, 133:21 (6 Jan. 1934). Janet Browne, Charles Darwin: The Power of Place. Volume II of a Biography (London: Jonathan Cape, 2002), pp. 423-4. Browne, ‘Looking at Darwin: portraits and the making of an icon’, Isis, 100: 3 (September 2009), pp. 542–570 (pp. 552–3). 


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