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Darwin Correspondence Project

2.22 L.-J. Chavalliaud statue in Liverpool

At about the time when a statue of Darwin was being commissioned by the Shropshire Horticultural Society for his native town of Shrewsbury, his transformative contributions to the sciences of botany and horticulture were also being commemorated in Liverpool. The most striking architectural feature of Sefton Park on the outskirts of the city is a Palm House designed and built in 1896 by the firm of MacKenzie and Moncur, who also worked on the north and south blocks of the Temperate House at Kew. The Palm House has been beautifully restored from a state of dereliction, and was re-opened in 2001.  

The moving spirit behind this project for a winter garden was Henry Yates Thompson, who was born into a wealthy banking family and became a newspaper proprietor (he owned the Pall Mall Gazette from 1880 until 1892, when he sold it to William Waldorf Astor). Thompson was a passionate and discerning collector of medieval illuminated manuscripts, but he was also a generous funder of public building projects in the fields of the arts and education. He decided to give £10,000 to his native city of Liverpool for the construction of the Palm House and its winter garden, and himself devised the programme for its external decoration.    

This is a fine three-tiered glass and iron octagonal structure on a polished granite base, with four decorated entrance porches at points of the compass. There are eight life-size statues on granite plinths at the angles of the octagon (c.1896–1897), flanking the entrances. All were the work of the French sculptor Léon-Joseph Chavalliaud, who was resident in Britain in the 1890s, and received commissions for busts, statues and tomb monuments. When Thompson was presented with the freedom of Liverpool in 1901, he commented on the fact that most public statues were of royalty, generals, admirals or local worthies; but he had wished to create in Sefton Park ‘a sort of Valhalla’ of ‘men who were at the head of their profession in various ways, not only in Liverpool or in England, but all the world over’. The effigies of these great men of all centuries would instruct and inspire visitors to Sefton Park, ‘especially the younger people’. They fell into two alternated groups, distinguished both by the nature of their claims to greatness and by the material which Chavalliaud used for the statues. Four of them (Darwin, John Parkinson, Linnaeus and Le Nôtre) were pioneering ‘gardeners’, sculpted in marble; and the other four (Columbus, ‘Henry the Navigator’, Captain James Cook and Mercator) were seafaring explorers and cartographers, sculpted in bronze. Thus Thompson intended to allude both to the garden and park setting of the Palm House, and to the history of Liverpool as a major port for voyagers to the Americas. In this rather idiosyncratically chosen ‘Valhalla’, Darwin was the only man who had lived and worked in recent times, as was also the case in the series of statues of great scientists in the Oxford University Museum. It is a reminder that, while Darwin’s unique image was carefully controlled by his family during his lifetime, posthumous portrayals co-opted him to many divergent schemes and purposes. Here Darwin, wearing his familiar outdoor cape and carrying a stick (now partly broken off), is closely inspecting a flower, perhaps an orchid: the emphasis is on first-hand analysis of natural phenomena rather than on abstract thought. Thus the inscription on the plinth reads ‘CHARLES DARWIN Born at Shrewsbury 1809 buried in Westminster Abbey 1882/ Naturae minister et interpres’ – the scientist as servant and interpreter of nature, a quotation from Francis Bacon.  

  • physical location Palm House, Sefton Park, Liverpool 

  • accession or collection number not applicable 

  • copyright holder Liverpool City Council 

  • originator of image Léon-Joseph Chavalliaud 

  • date of creation c.1896–1898 

  • computer-readable date c.1896-01-01 to 1898-12-31 

  • medium and material marble 

  • references and bibliography Article on Henry Yates Thompson by Alan Bell in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Terry Cavanagh, Public Sculpture of Liverpool (Public Monuments and Sculpture Association National Recording Project), (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1997), pp. 197–203. Memorandum by Sefton Park Palm House Preservation Trust (TCP 53), 1999, at https://publications.parliament.uk, accessed October 2019. Mapping the Practice and Profession of Sculpture in Britain and Ireland 1851–1951, entry for Chavalliaud:  https://sculpture.gla.ac.uk/view/person, accessed October 2019. ‘Sefton Park’, Wikipedia entry, with photographs of the Palm House statues.  


 

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