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Darwin Correspondence Project

2.14 Boehm, Westminster Abbey roundel

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A bronze plaque or medallion with a portrayal of Darwin was installed in Westminster Abbey in 1888, six years after his grand funeral and burial there. Like the seated statue of Darwin in the Natural History Museum of 1884–1885, it was the work of Edgar Boehm, and both monuments were commissioned by the Darwin Memorial Committee under the aegis of the Royal Society. The Committee’s report details a payment to Boehm of £150 for the plaque, and another £150 was paid as a fee or ‘fine’ to the Dean and Chapter of Westminster. The minutes of a Chapter meeting of 12 December 1887 mention that the Dean was to set the level of the fine, but there is no record of when the monument was actually installed: presumably early in 1888. A guide to the Abbey published in 1888 mentions a ‘bronze medallion portrait head of Mr. Darwin . . . lately . . . erected by his family’, so it is possible that it was the Darwin family who organised the installation, and negotiated with the Dean and Chapter or their representatives.  

When Darwin’s death was announced in 1882, pressure from his scientific circle, supported by popular sentiment and by the tributes which flowed in from other countries, had secured the approval of the Westminster Abbey clergy for the posthumous honour of his burial among the nation’s heroes. A refusal to allow it would have smacked of religious intolerance, a bigoted rejection of the scientific advances associated with Darwin’s name, and a lack of patriotism, putting the Church on the wrong side of history. Nevertheless, his funeral and interment, arranged at such short notice, raised logistical problems, given the density of tombs and monuments that already filled the Abbey. Perhaps anticipating this difficulty, Darwin’s half-cousin Francis Galton proposed, in a letter to the Pall Mall Gazette, that Darwin’s monument in the Abbey should take the form of a stained glass window illustrating the Benedicite (‘O all ye works of the Lord, bless ye the Lord . . .’). Its individual panels could perhaps represent the donations of different nations and groups, ‘without merging their several contributions indistinguishably into one’.  

For whatever reason – perhaps the doctrinal queasiness of the clergy or the diversion of funds and attention to the Natural History Museum statue of Darwin – this idea was not taken up, but the problem of Darwin’s commemoration in the Abbey remained. It was felt that he should be buried near Sir Isaac Newton, with whom he was often compared in terms of scientific genius; but there could be no possibility of a monument as grand as Rysbrack’s tomb of Newton, which stands against the choir screen on the north side of the nave, nor even of immediate proximity to it. As the Daily News’s writer noted, ‘the question of finding space will be rather a difficult one, for the walls at this part are fully covered’. In the event, Darwin was buried in the north nave aisle under a simple marble tomb slab, inscribed with his name and dates, next to the tomb of John Herschel, and not far from those of Charles Lyell and Newton. An initial proposal for a commemorative bust, mentioned in the Times on 13 May 1882, was not followed up; and the bronze plaque portraying Darwin, which was commissioned a few years later, was awkwardly separated from the tomb, being placed in a dark wall space in the north choir aisle behind the organ. It was above the recumbent effigy of a former Sub-Dean of the Abbey, John Thynne, and near a cluster of monuments to composers, which gave it the name of the ‘Musicians’ aisle’. Nowhere was there scope for an inscription to record Darwin’s achievements; nor could his family control, as they did elsewhere, the context in which his portrait was placed. There had always been an insistence on his uniqueness and hence his solitariness as a scientific thinker; but in the Abbey a kind of ‘scientists’ corner’ was gradually created (c.1893–1915), in which Darwin’s portrayal became just one in a group of memorials to scientists working in various fields of research, ultimately arranged as a symmetrical ensemble. A bronze plaque with a frontal head of George Gabriel Stokes, erected in 1904, matched that of Darwin, and, in between them, three round marble plaques with profile heads of John Couch Adams, Joseph Lister, and Alfred Russel Wallace were inserted in a row. Where there was still a little available space, to the left of Thynne’s tomb, plaques commemorating James Prescott Joule, Joseph Hooker (Darwin’s closest friend), and William Ramsay were added one below the other. 

Boehm’s plaque of Darwin is a life-size head-and-shoulders portrayal in nearly frontal view, modelled in high relief within a richly moulded frame; a decorative cartouche is inscribed simply ‘DARWIN’. His mild and thoughtful face, slightly idealised in the features, is closely related to that of the Natural History Museum statue. 

  • physical location Westminster Abbey, north choir aisle 

  • accession or collection number 0152 

  • copyright holder The Dean and Chapter of Westminster 

  • originator of image Edgar Boehm 

  • date of creation 1887–1888 

  • computer-readable date 1887-01-01 to 1888-12-31 

  • medium and material bronze relief 

  • references and bibliography Much information kindly provided by the Keeper of the Muniments of Westminster Abbey, Matthew Payne. ‘Mr. Darwin’s funeral’, Daily News (26 April 1882). F.G. [Francis Galton], ‘The late Mr. Darwin: A Suggestion’, Pall Mall Gazette (27 April 1882). ‘Literary and other notes’, Times (13 May, 1882), p. 10. Darwin Memorial Fund: Report of the Committee (London, 1888). Mabel Charlotte Bradley and Emily Tennyson Bradley, Westminster Abbey Guide (1888), p. 21. Emily Tennyson Bradley, Annals of Westminster Abbey (London: Cassell, 1898), pp. 370–371. James R. Moore, ‘Charles Darwin lies in Westminster Abbey’, in R.J. Berry (ed.), Charles Darwin: A Commemoration 1882–1982 (London: Linnean Society and Academic Press, 1982), pp. 97–113. Adrian Desmond and James Moore, Darwin (London: Michael Joseph, 1991), pp. 671–675. Tony Trowles, Treasures of Westminster Abbey (London: Scala, 2008), pp. 32, 41, 165. J. van Wyhe in ‘Iconography’, p. 115, mentions a once-existing full-size model for the Westminster Abbey plaque.  

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