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Darwin Correspondence Project

2.16 Horace Montford statue, Shrewsbury

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Horace Montford’s statue of Darwin, installed in his birthplace, Shrewsbury, in 1897, is one of the finest of the commemorative portrayals of him. Up to that time, the only memorial to Darwin in the town was a wall tablet of 1882 in the Unitarian church, recording his attendance as a worshipper there in early life. It was hardly an adequate tribute to the man who was acknowledged to be Shrewsbury’s ‘greatest son’. When the Midland Union of Natural History Societies visited Shrewsbury for its annual meeting in 1886, the President, in his address, remarked that prophets were proverbially without honour in their own countries: he suggested ‘starting a subscription list for the purpose of erecting a statue’ in the town. Nothing came of this proposal, and in 1893–1894 another project for a statue of Darwin came to nothing, due to a shortfall in subscriptions – a failure which was felt to shame the town council and citizens. Luckily circumstances became more auspicious in 1896–1897. The Shropshire Horticultural Society (SHS) secured a partnership with the Royal Horticultural Society to stage a joint ‘summer exhibition’ in Shrewsbury in 1897, and the SHS raised its profile further by ‘devoting some £1000 of its surplus money to the payment of a debt which ought to have been discharged years ago by the public at large’ in commissioning a statue of Darwin, to be unveiled at the time of the show and presented to the town. The show itself was to be ‘illustrative of the advance of horticulture during the sixty years of Her Majesty’s reign’. Victoria’s diamond jubilee in 1897 was celebrated in Shrewsbury and across the country as an occasion for national self-congratulation. The Shrewsbury Chronicle noted that the public mood chimed with ‘the ruling sentiment of British imperialism’: the festivities commemorated the country’s rise to a position of world power and of unrivalled intellectual achievement. Darwin in particular was internationally venerated, because ‘his name was the high-water mark in the history of humanity’. For the SHS he was, more specifically, ‘the greatest Scientist in Horticultural and other researches this nation has ever produced’, and a prime source of local pride. 

The minutes of the SHS general committee for November 1896 reveal that the sculptor Horace Montford, who was born near Shrewsbury, had already produced a small plaster ‘sitting Model’ of the figure of Darwin for appraisal. The SHS sought advice from two other eminent London-based sculptors, Hamo Thorneycroft and Edward Onslow Ford; they both wholeheartedly recommended Montford, who was head of the Royal Academy’s School of Sculpture, and he was accordingly given the commission. The monument was planned, designed and modelled by Montford and cast in bronze by Board & Son, a professional foundry, in only seven months. It was unveiled on 10 August  1897, at a ceremony attended by Joseph Hooker and by two of Darwin’s sons, William and George, as well as by civic and church dignitaries and ‘a large concourse of townspeople’. The event and the speeches were widely reported in the national and local press, especially in the Shrewsbury Chronicle. Hooker, the ‘accomplished disciple and dear friend of Darwin’, spoke, with emotion, about the circumstances and nature of that lifelong friendship.   

The quality of the finished statue proved that nothing had been lost by the committee’s preference for giving the commission to a local man. It is an impressive and sympathetic likeness of Darwin in old age, in the creation of which Montford had the advice of Francis Darwin and other members of the family, as well as recourse to the late photographs of his subject. The hands were modelled from those of George Darwin, as most nearly resembling his father’s – thus avoiding the criticisms that had initially been directed at Boehm’s treatment of Darwin’s hands in the Natural History Museum statue. Just as in life, when at work in his study, Darwin sits, legs crossed, on a high-seated chair, holding a sheaf of manuscripts; the Times noted that he looks up from his reading, ‘as if deep in thought’. A collecting bag for specimens rests on a pile of his books below, while the bands of relief ornament running round the chair appropriately represent corals, barnacles, orchids and other plants and insects in which Darwin was interested. The winged suns below the reliefs may, it is suggested, symbolise the victory of scientific truth over religious dogmatism. 

Montford’s statue was erected in the forecourt of the old Shrewsbury school which Darwin had attended as a boy – but by 1897 the building housed the town’s free library and museum. The seventeenth-century statues on the columns flanking the entrance arch appropriately represent ‘Philomathon and ‘Polymathon’, the lover of knowledge and the knowledgeable. Montford himself made the bold and controversial decision to place the statue of Darwin, which is raised on a high granite plinth, on the flagged path leading straight to this central door of the library. It immediately arrests the attention of the visitor and invites close inspection, although the character of the whole figure can only be appreciated from a little distance. The statue is visually framed by the library entrance, a positioning that perhaps recalled the Bishop of Hereford’s remark in 1896 ‘that Darwin was ordained one of the doorkeepers in the vast temple of the universe, who opened to them new vistas’ of scientific knowledge. William Darwin in his speech at the unveiling ceremony noted more prosaically that his father’s ‘life’s work had had a great deal to do with sweeping away or diminishing the very mediaeval form of education’ he had received at Shrewsbury school. 

While Horace Montford was working on the Shrewsbury statue and the portrait busts which stemmed from it, his son Paul Raphael Montford produced a spirited portrait of Darwin in the form of a chalk sketch, which was reproduced in the popular science magazine Knowledge. In dress and feature it clearly follows his father’s dignified prototypes, but the facial expression he gives to Darwin irreverently borders on caricature.      

  • physical location Castle Gates, Shrewsbury, in the public library forecourt 

  • accession or collection number Historic England, list entry no. 1246556. Public Monuments & Sculpture Association, record SAshSRgl006 

  • copyright holder unknown  

  • originator of image Horace Montford 

  • date of creation 1896–1897 

  • computer-readable date 1896-11-01 to 1897-07-31 

  • medium and material bronze statue on a high pedestal of polished granite, with moulded cornices, resting on a stepped base of white Devonshire granite. Inscribed on the front of the pedestal, ‘DARWIN 1809 1882’; on the right edge of the bronze cast, ‘BROAD & SON FOUNDERS LONDON; on the left, ‘H. MONTFORD SC.’; on the back, ‘ERECTED BY THE SHROPSHIRE HORTICULTURAL SOCIETY 1897’. 

  • references and bibliography ‘Midland Union of Natural History Societies. Ninth Annual Meeting, Shrewsbury, 1886: Presidential Address’ by the Rev. J.D. La Touche, Midland Naturalist, 9 (1886), pp. 190–191, 240. Minutes of the Shropshire Horticultural Society’s general and finance committees, 1896–7 (Shropshire Archives, 3122/1). Bound volume of the Society’s records, in the form of reports, pamphlets, cuttings etc. (Shropshire Archives, 3122/3). Articles in Shrewsbury Chronicle (18 June, 1897), p. 5; (25 June 1897), p. 10; (13 August 1897), pp. 5–7. ‘Proposed Darwin memorial at Shrewsbury’, Times (31 January 1894), p. 8, and ‘Court Circular’ (11 August 1897), p. 8. ‘A memorial statue of Charles Darwin’, Manchester Guardian (11 August 1897), p. 6. ‘Statue of Darwin at Shrewsbury’, report in the Illustrated London News, 111:3043 (14 August 1897), p. 209, with Walter W. Naunton’s photograph showing the statue in frontal view, framed by the doorway, its columns then apparently covered in ivy. Algernon Graves, The Royal Academy of Arts: A Complete Dictionary of Contributors, 8 vols (London: Henry Graves and George Bell & Sons, 1906), vol. v., p. 275, lists Montford as exhibiting a ‘Model of the Statue of Darwin’ at the exhibition of 1898 (no. 1815). Darwin Centenary: The Portraits, Prints and Writings of Charles Robert Darwin, exhibited at Christ’s College, Cambridge, 1909 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1909), p. ii, acknowledging Montford’s loan of the ‘original cast of his statue of Darwin’ to the exhibition, pp. ii, 34, no. 193. George T. Noszlopy and Fiona Waterhouse, Public Sculpture of Herefordshire, Shropshire and Worcestershire in the series Public Sculpture of Britain, vol. 11 (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2010), pp. 107–109. J. van Wyhe, ‘Iconography’, p. 117. On the firm of Broad & Son: ‘British bronze sculpture founders and plaster figure makers, 1800–1980’: National Portrait Gallery website, at Paul Raphael Montford’s drawing of Darwin illustrated R. Lydekker’s article, ‘Biological progress in the Victorian era’, in Knowledge 20 (1 May 1897), pp. 110–112.  


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