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Darwin Correspondence Project

2.11 Christian Lehr, plaster bust

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A plaster bust of Darwin by the German artist Christian Wilhelm Jacob Lehr the younger, dating from 1883, has found its way to a historic zoological library in the Netherlands. This is the Artis Bibliotheek, Natura Artis Magistra, which since 2005 has been part of the special collections of the University of Amsterdam: recent photographs show the bust on view in the library’s grand reading room. Lehr’s work (either this or another cast from the same model) was known to the Darwin family, although it was based not on sittings with Darwin, but presumably on study of photographs of him. Francis Darwin included it, in the listing of portraits of his father in Life and Letters, among the ‘Chief portraits and memorials not taken from life’. He did not know its material, owner, location, or date, but possessed a photograph of it, perhaps the frontal view of the bust published by the photographer Alfred Naumann of Leipzig, which is now in the Darwin archive (DAR 225: 126). On the basis of the photograph alone, Francis Darwin preferred it to the bust of Darwin by Woolner. He therefore recommended Lehr’s work as a model for the American sculptor William Couper, who had been commissioned by the New York Academy of Sciences for a bronze bust of Darwin, destined for the American Museum of Natural History. In 1908 Francis wrote to Charles Finney Cox, President of the New York Academy: ‘I think your best plan would be to get a cast of the bust of which I send a photograph . . . I have never seen the bust but judging from the photograph it is a good portrait and a dignified bit of work . . . I have no idea whether Lehr is still living, the bust must have been made quite 20 years ago. I have not looked at this photograph for many years, and now I see how good it is, I wish I had a cast of the bust myself.’  

This is indeed a ‘dignified’ and rather idealising portrayal of Darwin, prophet-like in the effect of the gracefully shaped wavy beard and naked breast. It is inscribed on the front ‘Charles Darwin’, and signed on the right side, ‘C. Lehr D.J. [i.e. ‘der jünger’, the younger] sculpt./Leipzig 1883’. Lehr, born in Berlin in March 1856, was a designer and graphic artist as well as being a sculptor; he worked in many German cities, and apparently taught for a time at the Kunstgewerbeschule in Aachen. However, nothing seems to be known as yet about the circumstances in which the bust of Darwin was produced. The date suggests a wish to memorialise Darwin after his death in 1882, and it was perhaps commissioned by a German learned or scientific society; it was acquired by the University of Amsterdam in 1939. Thieme and Becker, in their Allgemeines Lexikon der Bildenden Künstler of 1928, puzzlingly mention a ‘Darwin monument’ [‘Denkmal’] by Lehr in Oxford. Freeman in his Darwin Companion of 1978 similarly recorded a bust of Darwin by Lehr as being in the Oxford University Museum, but whether he inferred this from the entry in Thieme-Becker, or was drawing on a common source, or had first-hand knowledge, is not clear. There is no bust of Darwin by Lehr in the Museum’s collection now, and Danielle Czerkaszyn, archivist there, has very kindly ascertained that it is not in any of the other museums, libraries or colleges of Oxford University. However, John van Wyhe mentions that there are casts in the Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin and in the Botanical Institute of Bucharest.  

  • physical location Artis Bibliotheek, Amsterdam 

  • accession or collection number 000.254 

  • copyright holder University of Amsterdam (image no. 0000258371) 

  • originator of image Christian Wilhelm Jacob Lehr the younger 

  • date of creation 1883 

  • computer-readable date 1883-01-01 to 1883-12-31 

  • medium and material plaster cast 

  • references and bibliography Archival information kindly provided by Kriszti Vákár, Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, Netherlands Institute for Art History [RKD]., accessed October 2019. Francis Darwin (ed.), The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin Vol. 3 (London: John Murray, 1887), Appendix III, ‘Portraits’, p. 371. Ulrich Thieme and Felix Becker, Allgemeines Lexikon der bildenden Künstler (Leipzig: Seeman, 1928), article on Lehr. R.B. Freeman, Charles Darwin, A Companion, 2nd ed. (London: Dawson, 1978), p. 94, no. 9. Sidney Horenstein, ‘Darwin’s busts and public evolutionary outreach and education’, Evolution: Education and Outreach, 4 (2011), pp. 478–488 (pp. 483–484), quoting Francis Darwin’s letter to Cox, 15 March 1908, in the Cox archives, New York Botanical Garden. J. van Wyhe, ‘Iconography’, p. 115. 

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