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Darwin Correspondence Project

2.23 Hope Pinker statue, Oxford Museum

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Henry Richard Hope Pinker’s life-size statue of Darwin was installed in the Oxford University Museum on 14 June 1899. It was the latest in a series of statues of great scientific thinkers, the ‘Founders and Improvers of Natural Knowledge’, which stand on socles attached to the piers of the arcade surrounding the glass-roofed central court of this remarkable building. Darwin’s statue was the only one that represented a scientist whose key works were produced in the second half of the nineteenth century. At the unveiling ceremony Joseph Hooker again spoke movingly about his long friendship with Darwin, which ‘ripened rapidly into feelings of esteem and reverence for his life, works, and character’. Hooker must have remembered that it was in this very building that he and Huxley had defended Darwin’s theories from Bishop Wilberforce’s attack, in the famous BAAS meeting of 1860. After Hooker had spoken, Raphael Meldola and the anthropologist Edward Burnett Tylor, then Keeper of the Museum, echoed his sentiments. Darwin was not only a great thinker who had transformed natural science: he was admirable, too, for his ‘philosophic calm’ and magnanimity. Tylor thought that Hope Pinker’s ‘speaking likeness’ of Darwin’s face would be an inspiration to generations of Oxford students.   

The statues and busts of scientists in the Oxford museum were all presented over the years by individuals or interested groups, rather than being commissioned by the university itself, and thus the choice of subjects often reflected the preoccupations of particular donors. The statue of Darwin was the gift of Edward Poulton, who was Hope Professor of Zoology at Oxford. The insect specimens acquired by Revd Frederick William Hope, who endowed the chair in zoology, formed the core of Oxford’s entomological collections, to which some specimens collected by Darwin, Wallace and others had been added; and Hope himself had been among Darwin’s early coadjutors in entomological study. More importantly, Poulton was the leading Darwinian among Oxford biologists: he defended and developed Darwin’s theories, and exemplified them through his arrangement of the Hope collection. He contributed a book, Charles Darwin and the Theory of Natural Selection (1896), to Cassell’s popular ‘Century Science’ series, and pointedly chose a photograph of Boehm’s statue of Darwin in the Natural History Museum, London, as the frontispiece. The statue of Darwin at Oxford, partly funded by the proceeds from Poulton’s book, was a very public affirmation of faith in Darwinism, in the face of continuing disagreement among scientists in the 1890s over the roles of natural selection and sexual selection in the evolutionary process, for example in the phenomenon of protective mimicry among insects. Alfred Russel Wallace, in a letter to his daughter dated 27 November 1896, told her, ‘Professor Poulton writes begging me on his knees (metaphorically) to promise to go to Oxford next year to make a speech on the putting up of a statue to Darwin!’ – Wallace intended ‘a kind, careful but positive refusal’. However, Poulton did not lack for influential supporters in Oxford. The Professor of Physiology John Burdon Sanderson wrote to Tylor to suggest, ‘the portrait statue of Darwin should not be one of a series but should stand by itself. It should overlook the geological and palaeontological collections, the arrangement of which Darwin would, had he been living, have regarded with interest as expressing his principles which are identified with his name.’ Others suggested that Darwin’s statue should be paired with that of Isaac Newton, as the two towering geniuses of British science, flanking the entry to the museum court on the west. Professor Sir Henry Acland, who had initiated and overseen the construction of the museum in the 1850s, wrote to the Vice Chancellor to suggest instead that the statue of Darwin should be placed in ‘the very centre’ of the east end of the court, where it ‘would be seen practically by everyone that entered the museum’. This proposal was adopted, and thus the figures of Darwin and Newton flank the archway leading through from the court to the newly-built extension of the building; it housed the Pitt Rivers Museum, which was devoted to the developing discipline of evolutionary anthropology. 

Hope Pinker had already been extensively employed on sculptures for the Oxford University Museum, and had become a close friend of Acland (as a long series of letters from the latter testifies). Thus he found this important commission falling into his lap. It compensated him for the rebuff he had received in 1878, when his proposal to create a bust of Darwin for the Royal Institution was rejected by the Darwin family. Darwin’s son William had been deputed to appraise the quality of the works exhibited by Hope Pinker at the Royal Academy that year, and he judged that they were ‘quite common place without being vulgar’. A letter in the Hope Pinker collection of documents in the Royal Academy archive indicates that in the early 1880s he again lost out – this time in competition with Boehm, for the commission to sculpt the Natural History Museum statue of Darwin. Hope Pinker’s statue at Oxford is indeed undistinguished by comparison with the portrayals of Darwin by Boehm and Montford, and arguably fails to convey his intellectual vitality. The material used, Caen stone, was common to most of the Oxford statues. It lacks the lustre of bronze or marble and its use partly explains the effect of inexpressive blankness in Darwin’s cape, which contrasts painfully with his heavily-veined hands. A contemporary writer referred to Hope Pinker’s characteristic rejection of any attempt to imitate the surface textures of fabrics in his sculptures, while one patron criticised what he described as the over-smooth ‘dull, photographic’ quality of his portraits. Yet Karl Pearson assured the sculptor in 1906 that his Darwin at Oxford always found admirers, and Poulton presented a plaster maquette or modello for it to Down House (EH88204590).    

The portrait of Darwin may have seemed like a startling intrusion into the cathedral-like interior of the museum, where the hallowed sages of past times, such as Euclid, Aristotle, Galileo, Linnaeus and Harvey, were shown like so many saints, lost in profound thought, and offering ‘contemplation and example’ to the onlooker. However, as the Vice-Chancellor of the University, Thomas Fowler, noted at the unveiling of Darwin’s statue, the intellectual breadth of his researches – his integration of scientific specialisms into a holistic study of the natural world and of human cultural development – was, in one sense, ideally attuned to the original vision of the building and its functions that Acland and John Ruskin had conceived half a century earlier. In bringing together under one roof the scientific departments and specimen collections previously scattered across Oxford, Acland and Ruskin had intended to demonstrate the interdependence of all scientific fields, and to introduce students, including those studying the humanities, to the fundamental principles of the sciences. They believed that investigations of the workings of God’s unitary creation could lead not, as many in Oxford then feared, to atheism, but rather to wisdom and reverence. As the century progressed, the natural theology which underpinned this ideal was increasingly overtaken by more racist and imperialist notions. The series of skulls later exhibited in the central court of the museum to represent supposed racial characters, and the graded artefacts of ‘primitive’ peoples in the Pitt-Rivers collection were all intended to exemplify the potential for ‘progress in design and evolution in human culture’. This ‘progress’ was believed to reach its highest point in modern European (especially British) intellectual achievements, of which Darwin was often cited as the supreme example. Whereas many of the Oxford statues introduced accessory objects indicative of the scientists’ particular experiments and researches, Hope Pinker’s Darwin has none, and this presentation of him as purely a great thinker is wholly typical of Darwin iconography in general. 

  • physical location Oxford University Museum of Natural History 

  • accession or collection number ART016 

  • copyright holder Oxford University 

  • originator of image Henry Richard Hope Pinker 

  • date of creation 1898-9 

  • computer-readable date 1898-01-01 to 1899-05-31 

  • medium and material statue carved in Caen limestone 

  • references and bibliography Letter from William Darwin to his father Charles Darwin, 10 July [1878], in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press}, vol. 26. Undated letter from ‘Waller’ to Hope Pinker, breaking the disappointing news that Boehm was to be given the Natural History Museum commission (Hope Pinker collection of letters, Royal Academy archive, HRHP/LPM/UVW31). Undated letter from H.E. Luxmoore of Eton College to Hope Pinker c.1902, criticising the style of a bust (ditto, HRHP/LPM/UVW41). Letter from Karl Pearson to Hope Pinker, 2 Dec. 1906, about a further commission for the Oxford Museum (ditto, HRHP/LPM/UVW49). Henry W. Acland and John Ruskin, The Oxford Museum, ‘From original Edition, 1859. With Additions in 1893’ (London and Orpington: George Allen, 1893). Francis Darwin and A.C. Seward (eds), More Letters of Charles Darwin, 2 vols (London: John Murray, 1903), vol. 1, p. 38. Anon., The Unveiling of the Statue of Sydenham in the Oxford Museum . . . with an Address by Sir Henry W. Acland (Oxford: Horace Hart, 1894). Edward B. Poulton’s correspondence with William Flower, Director of the Natural History Museum in London, in 1895, about use of a photograph of Boehm’s statue of Darwin in Poulton’s book: Poulton MSS, Oxford University Museum archive. Poulton, Charles Darwin and the Theory of Natural Selection (London, Paris, Melbourne: Cassell, 1896). Letter from Poulton to Acland, 25 Nov. 1896, OUM archive, Box 2, 1896/1. Letter from Alfred Russel Wallace to his daughter Violet, 27 Nov. 1896, in the collection of Wallace’s papers in the Natural History Museum, London, Box 5, WPI/2/77. Report of the Committee of Delegates appointed Nov. 28, 1896, to consider places in the Museum for the Bust of Sir Henry Acland and for the proposed Statue of Darwin (February 2, 1897), proof copy, OUM archive, Box 1, HM 1874–1902. Letter, dated ‘Oxford, Dec. 10’ [c. 1896–1897] from Burdon Sanderson to Tylor, Bodleian Library, MU 3/8/15. Letter from Henry Acland to the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University, Thomas Fowler, 12 May 1899, OUM archive, Box 2, 1899/2. Walter F.R. Weldon, The Human Crania in the University Museum, pamphlet dated 25 May 1899, OUM archive, Box 1, 1.7. ‘Presentation of a Darwin statue to Oxford University: address by Sir Joseph Hooker’, Manchester Guardian (15 June 1899), p. 4. ‘A Darwin statue at Oxford’, Times (15 June 1899), pp. 7 and 9. ‘Unveiling the Darwin statue at the Museum’, Jackson’s Oxford Journal, 17 June 1899, p. 8, accessible via Darwin Online, F2169. 12th Annual Report of the Delegates of the University Museum for 1899, p. 4. M.H. Spielmann, British Sculpture and Sculptors of To-day (London: Cassell, 1901), pp. 63–66. ‘University intelligence . . . Prof. Poulton on Darwinism’, Times (13 Feb. 1909), p. 9. Horace Middleton Vernon and K. Dorothea Ewart Vernon, A History of the Oxford Museum (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1909), pp. 118–120. Edward Tyas Cook, The Life of John Ruskin, 2nd ed., 2 vols (London: George Allen, 1912), vol. 1, pp. 443–452. Bulletin of the British Museum (Natural History) Historical Series, 14:1 (24 Sept. 1987), pp. 5, 14, 29f., 119–120, on Darwin’s connections with the entomological collections at Oxford. Trevor Garnham, Oxford Museum: Deane and Woodward (London: Phaidon, 1992). Carla Yanni, Nature’s Museums: Victorian Science and the Architecture of Display (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999), pp. 62–90. University of Oxford, ‘The University Museum Conservation Plan’, drafted May 2012, at, accessed September 2019. ‘Oxford University Museum of Natural History: The statues in the court’, at, accessed September 2019. Alexandra Nevill, ‘The career choices of the Victorian sculptor: establishing an economic model for the careers of Edward Onslow Ford and Henry Hope Pinker through their works’, M.A. thesis, University of Leiden, 2016, at, accessed September 2019. John Holmes, Temple of Science: The Pre-Raphaelites and Oxford University Museum of Natural History (Oxford: Bodleian Library and Oxford University Museum of Natural History, 2020), pp. 136, 148–149. John Holmes, Temple of Science: The Pre-Raphaelites and Oxford Museum of Natural History (Oxford: Bodleian Library and the Oxford Museum, 2020), pp. 136, 138–153.  J. van Wyhe, ‘Iconography’, p. 117.  


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