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Darwin Correspondence Project

2.3 Wedgwood medallions

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Despite Darwin’s closeness to the Wedgwood family, he was studiously uninterested in the productions of his maternal grandfather Josiah Wedgwood I, the immensely successful ceramic manufacturer. In a letter to Hooker of January 1863, Darwin described himself and his wife Emma (also a grandchild of Josiah) with mock self-deprecation, as ‘degenerate descendants’ of the great man. He explained that the Darwin children were allowed to play with family heirlooms such as Wedgwood medallions until many were ‘lost and wasted’; and, as regards Wedgwood dishes, the family had ‘not a bit of pretty ware in the house’. He even sold off one of Wedgwood’s very valuable copies of the ancient Portland vase, which he had inherited. Writing to Darwin, Joseph Hooker deplored this ‘insensibility to Wedgewood [sic] ware’. Hooker himself became a lifelong enthusiast and collector, with a self-confessed ‘medallion passion’, especially in relation to the more valuable eighteenth-century pieces that he discovered on forays into junkshops and antique dealers’ premises in London. Hooker seems to have projected a series of ceramic portraits of leading natural scientists for the museum at Kew, and in the spring of 1863 he borrowed from the Darwin family a Wedgwood medallion of Charles’s grandfather Erasmus Darwin, arranging for some casts of it to be taken by Woolner. Darwin’s lack of interest in this enterprise was not shared by his eldest son William, who developed a taste for Wedgwood ware that lasted his life: in later years William often corresponded with Hooker about their shared hobby.  

It is therefore extremely unlikely that it was Darwin himself who commissioned the sculptor Thomas Woolner to design a medallion portraying him in profile, for manufacture by the Wedgwood firm: Hooker and William Darwin were the moving spirits. As mentioned above, Hooker had actually been in touch with Woolner since 1863. However, it was apparently William who directly arranged the commission for a portrait medallion of his father, and probably paid for it himself. In a letter from his Southampton home, dateable to 7 June 1869, he reported to Woolner, ‘The Medallion has come quite safe. It makes a remarkably fine medallion and I like it very much – I am sure it cannot give the Wedgwoods much trouble. I do not know whether I should send this to the Wedgwoods or whether the original you have should go to them, or the reversed cast’. William was here referring to the successive stages in Woolner’s production of the medallion: the first wax model portraying Darwin; the plaster mould created from it; and a clay relief cast from that mould, which Woolner had evidently sent to William.  

Amy Woolner, in her Life in Letters of her father, dated his model for Wedgwood’s Darwin medallion to 1869. Woolner was at Down House in 1868–9, creating a bust of Darwin: the profile portrait in the medallion can thus be seen as a spin-off from the design of the bust, and may even have been based on a side view of it. Three ceramic medallions, all from this one Woolner design, still exist in the collections of the Wedgwood Museum at Barlaston. Two of them are plain ovals in green jasper; the third is in blue jasper with an integral frame like a wreath. Although Darwin wears modern dress, the rather severe neoclassical style of the medallions accords well with the all’antica concept of Woolner’s bust of Darwin. At the same time, it harks back to the neoclassicism of Wedgwood’s eighteenth-century medallions of famous men, situating Darwin in history as a venerable sage – a worthy successor to philosophers such as John Locke and Adam Smith, who had been portrayed on Wedgwood medallions at an earlier period. 

  • physical location Victoria and Albert Museum (Wedgwood collection), Barlaston, near Stoke-on-Trent 

  • accession or collection numbers WE.6066-2016; WE.6069-2016; WE.6132-2016 

  • copyright holder V&A Wedgwood collection 

  • originator of image Thomas Woolner 

  • date of creation 1869 

  • computer-readable date c.1869-01-01 to 1869-07-31 

  • medium and material white on green jasper and white on blue jasper 

  • references and bibliography Much information on this work and on other Wedgwood portraits of Darwin has been kindly provided by Rebecca Klarner, of the curatorial team at the Wedgwood museum. Letters from Joseph Hooker to Darwin, 6 Jan. 1863 (DCP-LETT-3902) and [24 March 1863] (DCP-LETT-2027). Letters from Darwin to Hooker, 3 Jan. and 13 Jan. [1863] (DCP-LETT-3898 and DCP-LETT-3913). Other letters from Hooker to Darwin about his Wedgwood enthusiasms and collecting: 5 Feb. 1864 (DCP-LETT-4401); 6 April 1864 (DCP-LETT-4452); 26 or 27 April 1864 (DCP-LETT-4472). Amy Woolner (ed.), Thomas Woolner, R.A., Sculptor and Poet: His Life in Letters (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1917), pp. 283, 340. Leonard Huxley (ed.), Life and Letters of Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker, 2 vols (London: John Murray, 1918), vol. 2, pp. 77–79, 178, 360, 436–437. Robin Reilly and George Savage, Wedgwood: The Portrait Medallions (London: Barrie & Jenkins, [1973]). The Wedgwoods and the Darwins: an Exhibition to Mark the Centenary of the Death of Charles Darwin (1982): leaflet in the Wedgwood archive. Julius Bryant, ‘Darwin at home: observation and taste at Down House’, in Diana Donald and Jane Munro (eds), Endless Forms: Charles Darwin, Natural Science and the Visual Arts (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009), pp. 28–46 (pp. 37–8). 


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