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Darwin Correspondence Project

2.12 Allan Wyon, Royal Society medal

The Darwin medal of the Royal Society was awarded on a biennial basis from 1890 onwards, as a way of recognising individual achievement in the scientific fields to which Darwin himself had contributed. The first scientist to be honoured in this way was Alfred Russel Wallace, ‘For his independent origination of the theory of the origin of species by natural selection’. The next two recipients – Joseph Hooker in 1892 and Thomas Huxley in 1894 – were also chosen as close associates of Darwin in the genesis and defence of Origin of Species; awards to Ernst Haeckel in 1900 and Francis Galton in 1902 continued the tradition. The presentation ceremony usually took place at the Royal Society’s annual banquet on Saint Andrew’s day, 30 November, a date which commemorated the grant of a Royal Charter to the Society in 1662. In a speech of thanks on receiving the medal in 1894, Huxley affirmed his continuing belief that ‘the views which were propounded by Mr. Darwin 34 years ago may be understood hereafter as constituting an epoch in the intellectual history of the human race. (Cheers.) They will modify the whole system of our thought and opinion, our most intimate convictions’. Fifteen years later, on the occasion of the great Darwin Centenary celebration in Cambridge which marked that epoch, the then President of the Royal Society, Sir Archibald Geikie, presented to the University a ‘special copy’ of the Darwin medal, ‘struck in gold’. In making the presentation, Geikie mentioned that Lord Rayleigh, then Chancellor of Cambridge University, had been Secretary of the Royal Society at the time when the medal was commissioned from Allan Wyon and cast at the behest of ‘an international committee’. In fact, it can be securely dated to 1890 through an entry in the Wyon firm’s ledgers, held in Cambridge University Library. However, the original large model for it was apparently created as early as 1882, presumably to mark Darwin’s death. An undated ‘Bronze medallion’ by Wyon in the collection of the Royal Society must have been cast from this model, and another such cast is in the Natural History Museum.      

Allan Wyon was one of a large family dynasty of medal and seal designers and die engravers of German extraction, established in Britain since the mid eighteenth century. From 1884 to 1901 he held the post of Chief Engraver of Her Majesty’s Seals, and he co-authored with his brother Alfred a learned work, The Great Seals of England, from the Earliest Period to the Present Time (1887). His historical interests extended from numismatics into archaeology, and he was elected Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries in 1889. However, despite this interest in the arts and technologies of the past, Wyon adopted the most up to date methods for the production of his own medals. As Leonard Forrer explained, ‘an important factor to the present Renaissance of the medallic art was the introduction into general use of the Reducing Machine invented by Contamin’. A metal cast from the designer’s original large relief model could be mechanically scaled down to the required size of the medal, avoiding the slow labour of engraving dies for struck medals and coins. Roger Marx described the resulting aesthetic as a ‘mechanical precision of constant regularity’, with fine detailing: it was at the opposite pole from Legros’s deliberate handmade roughness in medallic art. 

‘Mechanical precision’ did not, however, preclude artistry or subtle meanings.  Wyon’s medal has a profile portrait of Darwin on the obverse side; it was perhaps based on Rejlander’s photograph of him, but the hair and beard are here idealised in their soft wavy curls. On the reverse is an inscription in capitals: ‘Carolus Darwin’ between his dates of birth and death, MDCCCIX and MDCCCLXXXII. The Royal Society’s catalogue of medals explains that this inscription is surrounded by a wreath ‘composed of the leaves and flowers of plants identified with Darwin’s researches’. They are described here (using their then-current Latin names) as those of Virginia creeper, sundew, pitcher plants, and primrose. Darwin discussed the creeper in his study of the behaviour of climbing plants; sundew and pitcher plants were instances of carnivorous adaptation that interested him; and primroses showed remarkable sexual polymorphism (heterostyly) conducive to cross-fertilisation. Over and above these scientific allusions, the varied forms of the plants create a richly decorative effect. 

  • physical location one example of the medal is at Down House, together with the wax model.  

  • accession or collection numbers EH88202654 and EH88202270 respectively   

  • copyright holder English Heritage 

  • originator of image Allan Wyon 

  • date of creation 1890 

  • computer-readable date 1890-01-01 to 1890- 10-31. 

  • medium and material struck medal, signed by Wyon on both sides. The medal was normally struck in silver or bronze. 

  • references and bibliography Wyon papers in Cambridge University Library, Add. MS 7651/8/1/No. 9106, p. 48, no. 601: ‘Royal Society: Darwin 1890 Medallist Allan Wyon, Drawer 28’. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, 50 (1891–1892), pp. 516f., ‘List of portraits and busts in the apartments of the Royal Society at Burlington House’, no. 38, ‘Bronze medallion’ by Allan Wyon; pp. 524f., ‘Catalogue of the medals in the possession of the Royal Society’, no. 56, ‘Royal Society, Darwin medal . . . ‘struck in silver or bronze’. ‘The Royal Society’, Times, 1 December 1894, p. 10. The Royal Society, file ref. no. JBO/51, Journal Book of the Royal Society, vol. 51, 1881–1893 (minutes, letters, papers etc.). Leonard Forrer, Biographical Dictionary of Medallists . . . with References to Their Works, 6 vols (London: Spink and Son, 1904), vol. 1, pp. xxxvi, 257–258. ‘The Darwin centenary at Cambridge, Times (24 June 1909), p. 10. British Museum (Natural History), Memorials of Charles Darwin (London: Trustees of the British Museum, 1909), p. 20, no. 98, electrotype made from Wyon’s original large model, presented to the museum by Sir John Evans in 1891 (see also below). Forrer, The Wyons, reprinted from the Biographical Dictionary of Medallists, vol. 6 (London: Spink and Son, 1917), pp. 11–12.  Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, exhibition Cambridge Portraits from Lely to Hockney, 1978, no. 91. Laurence Brown, A Catalogue of British Historical Medals, 1837–1901: The Reign of Queen Victoria (London: Seaby, 1987), vol. 2, p. 339, no. 3136. John C. Thackray, A Catalogue of Portraits, Paintings and Sculpture at the Natural History Museum, London (London: Mansell, 1995), p. 10, no. 18: a bronze medallion of Darwin corresponding to the portrayal in the Royal Society medal, but measuring 15cm, and described as an ‘electrotype of the wax model from which the Darwin Medal of the Royal Society was reduced’. 


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