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Darwin Correspondence Project

2.4 Wedgwood plaque

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Soon after Darwin’s death, a Wedgwood plaque in green jasper with a profile portrait of him was presented to Christ’s College, Cambridge, by his son George Darwin, who was himself a Cambridge don. It was set into the panelling of the room which had been Darwin’s sitting-room during his undergraduate years in Cambridge – years that he looked back to as the happiest of his life. The portrait in relief is an enlarged and adapted copy of Thomas Woolner’s design for a Wedgwood medallion, dating from 1869; thus it shows Darwin as he looked aged sixty, not as he would have appeared as an undergraduate of twenty. Below the portrait is another ceramic plaque, recording Darwin’s years at Christ’s College; it is inscribed ‘Charles Robert Darwin 1829–31’ (the first date should be 1828). There is also an inscription, ‘Erected by G.H. Darwin. Plumian Professor. 1885’: the plaque was a memorial of Darwin’s occupancy, but was also intended to be a record of family continuity in scientific endeavour and achievement associated with the University. Indeed, Rebecca Klarner, curator of the Wedgwood Museum, Barlaston, has suggested that Darwin’s garb – the triple folds or collars – looks as though he is wearing an academic gown, commemorating the award of his honorary doctorate at Cambridge. 

At least three other casts of the plaque are known. One of them, with a ‘peach-green’ jasper dip, was acquired by Nettie and Harry Buten, who founded a Wedgwood Museum at Merion, Pennsylvania, and was subsequently gifted by the Wedgwood Society of New York to the Art Fund Inc., at the Birmingham Museum of Art, Alabama; incised on the truncation is an inscription, ‘T.WOOLNER.Sc’. Another cast, in green jasper, was purchased by the American Philosophical Society directly from the Wedgwood firm in 1909, and is now in the Society’s museum in Philadelphia. Perhaps the purchase was inspired by a viewing of Christ’s College’s plaque during the Darwin Centenary celebrations held in Cambridge in 1909; on that occasion Darwin’s rooms at the College were opened to delegates, many of them visiting Americans. Yet another cast, this one in blue jasper, was given to the Wedgwood firm by William Darwin in 1914, the year of his death. An inscription on the back reads ‘1 portrait, 8 placques’ [sic], so more casts, not listed here, evidently existed.  

  • physical location Christ’s College, Cambridge. Other casts are in the Victoria and Albert Museum (Wedgwood collection, Barlaston) (WE.721-2016); Birmingham Museum of Art, Alabama (catalogue no. AFI.1118.2008); and the American Philosophical Society Museum, Philadelphia (catalogue no. 58.S.45) 

  • accession or collection number CC02514 

  • copyright holder Christ’s College Cambridge, or V&A Wedgwood collection 

  • originator of image Thomas Woolner, as designer of the medallion on which the plaque was based 

  • date of creation c.1884–1885 

  • computer-readable date c. 1884-01-01 to 1885-12-31 

  • medium and material white on green jasper, set into a wooden frame (plaques at Cambridge, Alabama and Philadelphia also in green or peach-green jasper) 

  • references and bibliography Tim M. Berra, Darwin and His Children: His Other Legacy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), p. 29, with a photograph of the plaque in Darwin’s college room, taken by J. Palmer Clark in 1909. John van Wyhe, Charles Darwin in Cambridge: The Most Joyful Years (New Jersey: World Scientific, 2014), pp. 120, 122. Van Wyhe, ‘Iconography’, p. 114. 


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