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Darwin Correspondence Project

2.1 Thomas Woolner bust

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Thomas Woolner’s marble bust of Darwin was the first portrayal of him that reflected an important transition in his status in the later 1860s. In the 1840s–1850s Darwin had been esteemed within scientific circles as one among many distinguished naturalists; after 1859 he was vilified as the subversive author of Origin of Species; but by 1869 Darwin had gained public fame as a thinker of unquestioned greatness. However, this formal bust portrait was not a public commission. It was Darwin’s close friend Joseph Hooker who raised the idea of an approach to Woolner in 1863, intending to acquire a work for his own collection, or perhaps for display at Kew. In January 1864 Hooker told Darwin, ‘I am very anxious to get Woolner down [to Down] to take a clay model of your bust, for myself, as you kindly promised I might . . . he shall cut it in marble at his leisure for me. – such heaps of people want to know what you are like – & the photographs are not pleasing’. This enterprise came to nothing – was Darwin wary of authorising the creation and circulation of an image that he did not control? – and when the project was revived, it was as a commission on behalf of Darwin’s brother Erasmus, presumably for his London house. In another change of plan, after many false starts and delays, the work was finally undertaken in November 1868, not for Erasmus but for Charles Darwin himself, and his immediate family. Leonard Darwin’s photograph of the dining room at Down House, taken c.1877, shows the bust on a high pedestal in the corner, near Joseph Wright’s oil portrait of Charles’s famous grandfather, Erasmus Darwin. An inventory of the contents of Down House, taken at the time of Darwin’s death in 1882, shows that this room also contained many other portraits of forbears, family members and Darwin himself. It was the most formal room in the house, where the Darwins dined with the growing numbers of reverent and awestruck visitors to Down, and apparently where Darwin carried out his duties as a magistrate. Yet the scene visible in Leonard’s photograph, with its rumpled sofa cover and assorted chairs, does not suggest dynastic or social pretension; and Woolner’s portrayal of Darwin, analogously, falls somewhere between accurate, unvarnished likeness and grand ideality. 

Woolner was one of the original members of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, dedicated to the greatest possible truth to nature in art. His busts of the famous, such as Tennyson and Gladstone, usually combined a strong sense of individual character in features, expression and surface details with modern dress. It is significant, therefore, that the bust of Darwin is all’antica, resembling ancient Greek and Roman busts of philosophers in the frontal position of the head and an effect of classical drapery. When the bust of Darwin was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1870, the Observer’s reviewer thought it was the best of the sculpted portraits shown that year. Woolner’s busts were ‘full of character, and . . . though in somewhat of a sensational style, finely modelled’, especially ‘his remarkable one of Mr. Darwin. In this Socrates like head, with its strangely projecting brows, with their profound shadows, the artist has shown great skill and sense of character’. The idea of a resemblance to portraits of Socrates is interesting on many grounds. Thomas Huxley thought, as some others did, that ‘One could not converse with Darwin without being reminded of Socrates’ and the “noble peroration” of his Apology. ‘There was . . . the same belief in the sovereignty of reason’ and the same fearless integrity in the face of calumnious attacks. Moreover, a physical resemblance between Darwin and Socrates was evident in the short bulbous form of their noses – a feature about which Darwin was clearly self-conscious, as a letter to Charles Lyell of 1861 shows. Victorian writers on physiognomy often mentioned Socrates’s nose as an exception to the general rule that intellectuals were distinguished by their prominent aquiline noses; but they believed that this flaw was counterbalanced by the impressive form of the ancient philosopher’s head. Similarly, Woolner has emphasised Darwin’s finely shaped forehead, and the intensity of the eyes under the heavy brows. The bust is inscribed in capitals on the front of the base ‘Charles Darwin’, and signed on the side ‘T. Woolner sc./ London 1869’.  

Woolner was a cultured intellectual – a poet as well as a sculptor - whose lively conversation, Darwin said, relieved the tedium of posing while the clay model for the bust was made. He was especially delighted by Woolner’s observation of the small lobe that sometimes occurs on the infolded edge of the human ear, believing it to be a relic of pointed ears in mankind’s animal ancestor. Woolner’s drawing of it was reproduced and credited in Descent of Man, and he was among the ‘personal friends’ invited to Darwin’s funeral in Westminster Abbey in 1882. A photograph of Woolner in his studio, c.1885, working on a bust of Tennyson, shows a model for the bust of Darwin on the shelf nearby, next to one of Gladstone, indicating the value that Woolner attached to it; he later presented this or another version of the bust to Sunderland Museum and Picture Gallery. Yet it was not accounted a success by the Darwin family. Darwin himself, according to his son William, scorned the unnatural or conventional way ‘in which the head . . . was attached at the neck’; his son George was ‘just a little disappointed’; and his son Francis thought, ‘the bust fails somewhat as a portrait’, having ‘a certain air, almost of pomposity, which seems to me foreign to my father’s expression’. In 1908, when Charles Finney Cox, President of the New York Academy of Sciences, sought guidance from the Darwin family as to the best model for a new bust to be commissioned from William Couper, Francis did not recommend use of the Woolner bust. It was ‘never liked by us’, and the sculptor Alfred Gilbert ‘considered it technically very bad. No cast has ever been made of it’. There was indeed no move to disseminate versions of Woolner’s image beyond the family, although it was and remained the only sculptured portrayal of Darwin taken from life. Darwin himself did rather ungraciously offer a plaster cast to Hooker, and another was later donated to the Royal College of Surgeons. The marble bust itself was presented to Cambridge University’s Botany Department, now the Department of Plant Sciences, c.1896, and it is now in the Herbarium Library; there is an undocumented replica at Down. The Department also possesses Woolner’s bust of John Stevens Henslow, Darwin’s mentor at Cambridge, which stands outside the entrance to the Herbarium.    

  • physical location University Herbarium Library, Department of Plant Sciences, University of Cambridge 

  • accession or collection number none 

  • copyright holder Department of Plant Sciences, University of Cambridge 

  • originator of image Thomas Woolner 

  • date of creation 1868–1869 

  • computer-readable date 1868-11-01 to 1869-12-31 

  • medium and material white marble bust on a marble column 

  • references and bibliography Sir James Paget, ‘Physiognomy of the human form’, Quarterly Review, 99:198 (Sept. 1856), pp. 452–491 (p. 477). Darwin’s letter to Lyell, 21 Aug. 1861: DCP-LETT-3235. Emma Darwin to Hooker, 26 Dec. 1863: DCP-LETT-4359. Hooker to Darwin, 24 Jan. 1864: DCP-LETT-4396. Darwin to Hooker, 17 Nov. and 25 Nov. 1867: DCP-LETT-5680 and 5696. Erasmus Darwin to Emma Darwin, before 19 Nov. 1867: DCP-LETT-5334. Darwin to Hooker, 26 Nov. 1868: DCP-LETT-6476. George Darwin to Darwin, 6 Feb. 1869: DCP-LETT-6604. ‘Royal Academy: Second Notice’, The Observer (8 May 1870), p. 6. Thomas Huxley, ‘Charles Darwin’, Nature, 25:652 (27 April 1882), p. 597. William Darwin’s reminiscences of his father, written in January 1883: DAR 112 B3d. Francis Darwin (ed.), The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, 3 vols (London: John Murray, 1887, 1888), vol. 3, pp. 105–106, 140.  Frederick George Stephens, ‘Thomas Woolner R.A.’, Art Journal, new series 56 (March 1894), pp. 80–86. Amy Woolner, Thomas Woolner, R.A., Sculptor and Poet: His Life in Letters (London: Chapman and Hall, 1917), pp. 283, 288, 340. J.W. Goodison, Catalogue of Cambridge Portraits I: The University Collection (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1955), p. 59, no. 76. William LeFanu, A Catalogue of the Portraits . . . in the Royal College of Surgeons (Edinburgh and London: E & S. Livingstone, 1960), p. 23, no. 66. Benedict Read and Joanna Barnes (eds), Pre-Raphaelite Sculpture: Nature and Imagination in British Sculpture 1848–1914 (The Henry Moore Foundation in association with Lund Humphries, London, 1991), pp. 21f., 160–161. John Henderson, ‘Seeing through Socrates: portrait of the philosopher in sculpture culture’, Art History, 19:3 (Sept. 1996), pp. 327–352. Julius Bryant (ed.), Collections Review, vol. 3 (London: English Heritage, 2001), pp. 43–44. Janet Browne, Charles Darwin: The Power of Place (London: Jonathan Cape, 2002), pp. 243, 273–274. Timothy Stevens, article on Woolner in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 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), pp. 39–41. Sidney Horenstein, American Museum of Natural History, ‘Darwin’s busts and public evolutionary outreach and education’, Evolution: Education and Outreach, 4 (9 July 2011), pp. 478–488 (p. 483). J. van Wyhe, ‘Iconography’, pp. 113–114. 


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