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Darwin Correspondence Project

2.28 Couper bust in Cambridge

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In June 1909 the University of Cambridge, Darwin’s alma mater, staged an international event to mark the centenary of his birth and the fifty years’ anniversary of the publication of Origin of Species. Over four hundred delegates and guests from all over the world attended the celebration, which included formal ceremonies and receptions, lectures, the award of honorary degrees, museum tours, and relaxed social gatherings. Visits to Darwin’s old college, Christ’s College, including a sight of the rooms he had occupied there, were prominent in the University’s programme of activities; and there was an exhibition in the College’s Old Library comprising ‘portraits, prints, and writings’ of Darwin, many of them loaned by members of the Darwin family. This exhibition, intended to appeal to the general public as well as to scientific specialists, was patterned on one that had been held in the Old Library a year earlier, to mark the tercentenary of the birth of John Milton in 1608. According to the Darwin exhibition catalogue, Christ’s College had produced ‘our greatest Cambridge poet’ in Milton and ‘our greatest Cambridge biologist’ in Darwin. Their twinned achievements happily symbolised a balance between the arts and sciences, but, as the Times noted, it was highly unusual for a man only recently dead to be thus raised to the status of the immortals.  

In the rather congested space of the Old Library exhibition, one work stood out, indeed obtruded itself: a twice life-size bronze bust of Darwin by the New York sculptor William Couper, cast in 1909. It was a replica of the bust commissioned by the New York Academy of Sciences, at a cost of $1000, for installation in the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH). The replica had been commissioned by the trustees of the AMNH itself, and cost the same as the first version; the money was raised through personal and institutional subscriptions from across the USA. The bust was to be a present to Christ’s College, but also a memorial of the American delegation’s visit to Cambridge for the 1909 celebration. Professor Henry Fairfield Osborn, President of the AMNH, who made the presentation as leader of the delegation, trusted that it would ‘convey to this and future generations of Cambridge students some impression of the rugged simplicity as well as of the intellectual grandeur of the man they revered and honoured’.  

The AMNH’s version of the bust stood on a high pedestal of red granite, and Osborn had suggested a similar base for Cambridge’s replica. However, the zoologist Arthur Shipley, who was then Secretary to the Cambridge museums and was soon to become Master of Christ’s College, objected: at such a height it would tower over an existing bust of Milton, which Christ’s College thought of as a pendant to the new bust of Darwin, standing ‘opposite it’. In view of this objection, the design of the base and the positioning of the work were put into Shipley’s hands, and evidently proved problematic. Indeed, the initial reception of the ‘colossal’ bust in Cambridge was lukewarm at best. While George Darwin praised it as a good likeness of his father, Francis Darwin was reported to be ‘rather reserved in his opinion’ of it. Osborn thought this might be partly due to the conditions in which he had viewed it in Christ’s College: ‘Unfortunately, it was exhibited in a very small room with other memorabilia of life size, and its heroic size threw it somewhat out of proportion’. This is a heavy work in every sense, and the features arguably lack expressiveness and animation. After various vicissitudes, the bust is now installed in the inconspicuous ‘Darwin portico’ at the periphery of the grounds of Christ’s College; the plinth was restored in 2009.   

  • physical location Christ’s College, Cambridge 

  • accession or collection number CC00287 

  • copyright holder Christ’s College 

  • originator of the image William Couper 

  • date of creation 1909 

  • computer-readable date 1909-01-01 to 1909-05-31 

  • medium and material bronze bust 

  • references and bibliography John Willis Clark and Sir Albert Charles Seward, Order of the Proceedings at the Darwin Celebration held at Cambridge, June 22 – June 24, 1909. With a Sketch of Darwin’s Life (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1909). A.E. Shipley and J.C. Simpson (eds), Darwin Centenary: The Portraits, Prints and Writings of Charles Robert Darwin, exhibited at Christ’s College, Cambridge, 1909 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1909), p. 24, no. 119. ‘Darwin Centenary Number’, Christ’s College Magazine, no. 23 (1909). ‘University Intelligence: The Darwin Centenary’, a transcript from a special number of the Cambridge University Reporter, in Times (12 June 1909), p. 12. Christ’s College Magazine, no. 24 (1909–10), p. 15. ‘The Darwin centenary at Cambridge’, Times (22 June 1909), p. 9, and (24 June 1909), p. 10. J.W. Goodison, Catalogue of the Portraits in Christ’s, Clare and Sidney Sussex Colleges, Cambridge Antiquarian Records Society, vol. 7, 1985, p. 11, no. 19. Marsha Richmond, ‘The 1909 Darwin celebration: re-examining evolution in the light of Mendel, mutation, and meiosis’, Isis, 97 (2006), pp. 447–484. Sidney Horenstein, ‘Darwin’s busts and public evolutionary outreach and education’, Evolution: Education and Outreach, 4 (9 July 2011), pp. 478–488. John van Wyhe, Charles Darwin in Cambridge: the Most Joyful Years (New Jersey: World Scientific, 2014), p. 133, and van Wyhe, ‘Iconography’, p. 119. 


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