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Darwin Correspondence Project

3.10 Ernest Edwards, 'Men of Eminence'

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In 1865 Darwin was invited to feature in another series of published photographs, Portraits of Men of Eminence in Literature, Science and Art, with Biographical Memoirs . . . The Photographs from Life by Ernest Edwards, B.A. This enterprise had been launched by Lovell Augustus Reeve in 1863, but by 1865 Edward Walford had taken over as editor, with the writer and photographer Robert Hunt acting as his assistant. The general pattern came from Maull and Polyblank’s ‘Literary and Scientific Portrait Club’ series of the 1850s, but Portraits of Men of Eminence, initially issued in monthly parts, was smaller in page size (octavo) and in the scale of the tipped-in photographs. Darwin wrote to Walford, probably in the spring of 1865, to say, ‘I should of course be proud to be one of your Series’, as requested, but he could not spare the time to go to Edwards’s photographic studio in London just then. In the event, more than one sitting seems to have taken place, in November 1865 and April 1866. Darwin’s account book (among Down House MSS) indicates that on 2 March 1866 he made a payment of £1 for ‘E. Edwards Photo’, but it is not known which photograph this refers to.     

A mounted photograph and studiously written ‘biographical memoir’ of Darwin duly appeared in volume 5 of Men of Eminence, published in 1866 – the biographical ‘facts’ having been supplied by Darwin himself. Walford’s text, while acknowledging the controversial nature of Darwin’s theories, already treated him as a thinker of unassailable integrity and brilliance. He possessed ‘that high power of drawing with clearness and simplicity his deductions from his well-established facts, which distinguishes the true Philosopher’. The beard that Darwin had grown by 1865–1866 helped to enhance this impression of intellectual authority. In Men of Eminence he is shown in profile, soberly dressed, with one hand clasping the wrist of the other hand, in the manner that Francis Darwin said was characteristic of him. This image was also issued as a ‘carte de visite’, a copy of which survives in the Lindley Library of the Royal Horticultural Society. Another surviving photograph, a three-quarter view, was clearly taken on the same occasion and is dated 24 April 1866. John van Wyhe believes that two further photographs may belong to this group: one is an extended three-quarter view showing the seat of Darwin’s chair and his long crossed legs, but this was actually used in Walford’s Representative Men of 1868.  

If slightly less awkward and self-conscious than in the Maull and Polyblank photographs, Darwin nevertheless appears wan and plain-featured in these new images, partly as a result of his chronic ill health in the 1860s. Their effect was far from pleasing to Darwin’s family. His brother Erasmus – always a careful custodian of Charles’s public image – wrote to Emma, apparently in late November 1865, to say that he was waiting for a batch of photographs to arrive: ‘if I do wish to have any of them I will EAD [initial] them on the back’. However, he had evidently had a preview, and added, ‘My present impression is that they are too hideous to be borne. I think you had better write to the man & say that C will try again when he comes up to town after Christmas’. It is not clear which photographs Erasmus had seen at this stage: the group from which Walford selected the one actually used in Men of Eminence, or another prior group, which was rejected on Erasmus’s advice? In either case, a profile shot may have seemed the least objectionable. 

Ernest Edwards, who sometimes styled himself ‘B.A. Cantab.’, became a very successful portrait photographer, and Darwin was to sit to him several more times. They remained on friendly terms, and in 1872, Darwin even provided Edwards with a testimonial endorsing his ‘heliotype’ process for printing photographs, as used in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals that year. Nevertheless, the family’s distaste for his characterisation of Darwin apparently remained. Francis Darwin did not mention Edwards’s photographs in the catalogue of portraits of Darwin in Life and Letters, and the Cambridge Centenary exhibition of 1909 did not include any of them, except in the form of a wood engraving (uncredited) in the Illustrated London News, which derived from the three-quarter view photograph of 1865–1866 mentioned above (see separate catalogue entry). Once again, the products of a commercial studio appeared less insightful and dignified than photographs by Darwin’s sons, or by sympathetic acquaintances such as Julia Margaret Cameron. 

  • physical location British Library   

  • accession or collection number General Reference Collection 

  • copyright holder British Library 

  • originator of image Ernest Edwards 

  • date of creation 1865–1866 

  • computer-readable date c. 1865-11-01 to 1866-05-31 

  • medium and material albumen photographic print 

  • references and bibliography Letter from Darwin to Edward Walford, 22 [Jan. – April 1865?], (DCP-LETT-5508).  Letter from Erasmus Alvey Darwin to Emma Darwin, 25 [November 1865], (DCP-LETT-4942). Letter from Darwin to Robert Hunt, enclosing a sketch of ‘the principal events’ of his life for the text of Men of Eminence, 3 May [1866], (DCP-LETT-5524). Edward Walford (ed.), Portraits of Men of Eminence in Literature, Science, and Art, with Biographical Memoirs . . . The Photographs from Life, by Ernest Edwards, B.A., 6 vols (London: Lovell Reeve [later Alfred William Bennett], 1863–1867), vol. 5 (1866), ‘Charles Robert Darwin’, pp. 49–52. Draft of a letter from Darwin to Edwards, commending him and his heliotype process, 4 Sept. 1872 (DCP-LETT-8511). Wood-engraved vignette, based (in reverse) on Edwards’s near-profile view of Darwin’s head and shoulders, in Charles Francis Horne (ed.), Great Men and Famous Women. A Series of Pen and Pencil Sketches of the Lives of . . . the Most Prominent Personages in History, 8 vols (New York: Selmar Hess, 1894), vol. 2, p. 355, illustrating an article on Darwin by Archibald Geikie. Gertrude Mae Prescott, ‘Fame and photography: portrait publications in Great Britain, 1856–1900’, PhD thesis, University of Texas, 1985 (copy in the Wellcome Library).  Adrian Desmond and James Moore, Darwin (London: Michael Joseph, 1991), pp. 533–534. Janet Browne, ‘I could have retched all night: Charles Darwin and his body’, in Christopher Lawrence and Steven Shapin (eds), Science Incarnate: Historical Embodiments of Natural Knowledge (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1998), pp. 240–287 (p. 269). Browne, Charles Darwin: The Power of Place. Volume II of a Biography (London: Jonathan Cape, 2002), pp. 272–3. Browne, ‘Looking at Darwin: portraits and the making of an icon’, Isis, 100: 3 (Sept. 2009), pp. 542–570 (p. 563). Phillip Prodger, Darwin’s Camera: Art and Photography in the Theory of Evolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), pp. 108–109. Kathryn Hughes, Victorians Undone: Tales of the Flesh in the Age of Decorum (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017), ‘Charles Darwin’s beard’, pp. 71f. J. van Wyhe, ‘Iconography’, pp. 165–166. 


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