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Darwin Correspondence Project

3.1 Antoine Claudet, daguerreotype

This daguerreotype of Darwin with his firstborn child, William, was, according to a label on the glass, taken on 23 August 1842, just before the family moved from London to Down. It is generally attributed to the French photographer Antoine Claudet: there is no direct evidence for his involvement, but a contemporary daguerreotype of an unknown man in a Claudet case shows the same chair and studio background as the daguerreotype of the Darwins. Darwin’s account book for 1842 records the purchase of a daguerreotype and case (from an unnamed photographer) on 8 August 1842, which is close to the date ascribed to this one on the label. The label appears to indicate that William was then ‘three and three quarters’ years old, but this information does not tally with the dating: in August 1842, William would have been only two and a half, and he certainly looks to be about that age in the photograph. He is wearing a summery frock with a pleated skirt, which was then normal wear for boys of his age, and Darwin, a smiling and fond father, is holding him firmly, evidently to keep him still during the exposure. Emma Darwin thought that papa was young William’s ‘prime favourite’ among the people surrounding him in his infancy, and he loved to sit on his father’s lap, so it is no surprise that Darwin took on the role of steadying him for the photograph.  

Claudet, one of the pioneers in developing and improving the daguerreotype technique, had opened a photographic studio in London in 1841, using the kind of painted landscape backdrop behind his sitters which is visible here. Daguerreotypes were unique images: unlike calotypes and the products of later photographic techniques, they could not be replicated. Hence they became treasured, private family possessions, offering a small, intimate and very finely detailed portrayal of the sitters, mounted in a protective case. It was only after c.1900 that this image of Darwin became known to outsiders, and was seen as having historical value, especially in view of the dearth of portraits of him at this stage of his life. William Darwin himself lent the daguerreotype to the Cambridge Centenary exhibition of 1909 (dating it as on the label), and he apparently gave or bequeathed it to the widow of his brother George, living at Newnham Grange, Cambridge. When it was reproduced in Karl Pearson’s Life of Francis Galton in 1930, its owner was still ‘Lady George Darwin’, and, according to inscriptions on the back of photographs in the Darwin archive, it was inherited by her son Sir Charles Galton Darwin. It has subsequently returned to Down House.   

Claudet’s image of Darwin has an interest beyond that of showing his appearance at the age of thirty-three. Firstly, it was an early example of the daguerreotype medium, which was developed commercially only from c.1839 onwards; perhaps it reflected Darwin’s scientific interest in the possibilities of photography, especially in furtherance of his study of the infant William’s developing facial expressions. Yet it was the only photograph which was ever to show him with one of his family. Indeed, with the exception of Albert Goodwin’s 1880 watercolour of the garden at Down House, where Darwin and Emma appear as very distant figures, it was the only portrayal in any medium that depicted him with another family member – affectionate husband and father though he was. More surprisingly still, it remained the only original image of Darwin with any human companion. While the compilers of commercial series of prints and photographs might place him among his scientific peers or among national celebrities, or insert him into montages, Darwin never voluntarily posed with friends or associates – even with Hooker, Huxley or Wallace. The sense of his uniqueness as a thinker perhaps partly caused or arose from this phenomenon. 

  • physical location Down House, Kent 

  • accession or collection number EH88202861 

  • copyright holder English Heritage 

  • originator of image Antoine-François-Jean Claudet 

  • date of creation 23 August 1842 

  • computer-readable date 1842-08-23 

  • medium and material daguerreotype photograph (image produced by light-sensitised silver nanoparticles on a sheet of copper), displayed in a leatherette-bound and velvet-lined case under a cover glass. 

  • references and bibliography Photographic copies of the daguerreotype in the Darwin archive, CUL-DAR 225.129–130, with notes on the reverses indicating provenance of the original. Francis Darwin (ed.), The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, 3 vols (London: John Murray, 1887, 1888), vol. 3, pp. 233–234. Darwin Centenary: The Portraits, Prints and Writings of Charles Robert Darwin, exhibited at Christ’s College, Cambridge, 1909 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1909), p. 44, no. 238. Henrietta Litchfield (ed.), Emma Darwin: A Century of Family Letters, 1792–1896, 2 vols (London: John Murray, 1915), vol. 2, pp. 58–59. Karl Pearson, The Life, Letters and Labours of Francis Galton, 4 vols (Cambridge: University Press, 1914 onwards), vol. 3 (1930), plate xxxv, facing p. 340. Randal Keynes, Creation: The True Story of Charles Darwin (London: John Murray, 2009), pp. 59–60. 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. 33–34. [Geoffrey Belknap], ‘Darwin’s photographic portraits’, online at the Darwin Correspondence Project, accessed Jan. 2020. Technical report, ‘This is heritage science . . . Darwin’s daguerreotypes’, National Heritage Science Forum (12 March 2016), at J. van Wyhe, ‘Iconography’, pp. 160–161. 


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