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Darwin Correspondence Project

3.14 Julia Margaret Cameron, photos

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In the summer of 1868 Darwin took a holiday on the Isle of Wight with his immediate family, his brother Erasmus, and his friend Joseph Hooker. The family’s accommodation at Freshwater was rented from the photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, who seized this opportunity to portray both Darwin and Hooker – portraits that would come to be regarded as classic works. In that year Hooker was President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, and was preparing his presidential address for its forthcoming conference at Norwich. Cameron, never shy of publicity, may have foreseen that this event, and in particular Hooker’s speech – a ‘Eulogium’ of Darwin, would represent a public victory for the champions of evolutionary theory, such as to heighten the demand for images of Hooker and of Darwin himself. She was in any case a hero-worshipper who lionised the great men of the literary, artistic and scientific worlds, and felt she had a mission to immortalise them. In her autobiographical text ‘Annals of My Glass House’ (c.1874), she explained, ‘before my camera my whole soul has endeavoured to do its duty towards them in recording faithfully the greatness of the inner as well as the features of the outer man’. During the short period of her productivity as a portrait photographer, from c.1864 to the early 1870s, she photographed Tennyson (her friend and neighbour at Freshwater) several times, and also gained sittings with, among others, Browning, Carlyle, Herschel, and G.F. Watts. ‘Greatness’ was celebrated as an abstract quality that transcended the particularities of different fields of intellectual achievement. These portraits were often exhibited and sold in London at Colnaghi’s and elsewhere, or mounted in albums that were presented to Cameron’s well-connected friends – important leaders of cultivated taste and opinion. The distaste of the professional photographic lobby for Cameron’s unorthodox, ‘out of focus’ portraits was offset by the enthusiasm of such aesthetes, who made extravagant comparisons with the paintings of the old masters. Anne Thackeray Ritchie, writing in Alfred Lord Tennyson and His Friends (1893), an anthology of photogravures from Cameron’s portraits that included the one of Darwin, thought that ‘Something of what William Morris has done for the homes of intelligent people; what the aesthetic school ought to have done’, had been achieved by these photographs.  

Darwin was not a natural inhabitant of this self-consciously artistic milieu. Nevertheless, the family must have foreseen that Cameron’s portrayals of him would turn out to be wholly different from the products of the London studios, which she described scornfully as the ‘table-cover, chair and crinoline’ style of portrait photography. Her intention was to avoid any such circumstantial details of fashionable bourgeois dress and interior setting, in favour of a timeless celebration of unique qualities of mind. To this end, she devised a close-up, soft-focus view of her sitters, and the effect of blurring was increased by slight movements during the long exposures. Lady Eastlake, in her articles on photography published in the Quarterly Review in 1857, had already suggested that such out of focus images were ‘more artistically beautiful’. In Cameron’s photographs the head was strongly lit from above, and all the rest of the image faded into darkness, so that not even the hands were allowed to distract from the powerful effect of the face and expression. These are certainly the leading characteristics of the four or five known photographs of Darwin which Cameron took in the summer of 1868. However, he seems to have arrived at a compromise with this imperious portraitist: while many of her images of male geniuses showed them romantically dishevelled and swathed in rough drapery, Darwin is wearing his usual conventional coat and waistcoat. Even so, Julius Bryant could see ‘more than a passing resemblance’ between these photographs and Darwin’s own engraved portrait of Leonardo da Vinci, which hung on the wall of his study at Down House.  

Two of the photographs are ordinary three-quarter views – revealing, but unflattering. They were not widely circulated, although one serves as frontispiece to R.B. Freeman’s Charles Darwin: A Companion. In another shot, he has a cloak or blanket carelessly thrown over his shoulders, and his eyes are turned heavenwards as though seeking inspiration; but the effect was rather forced and unconvincing (National Portrait Gallery P8). The clear winner was a photograph in which his head is turned into a near-profile; the contour of his nose is improved by this angle of viewing, and the grand curve of his skull is highlighted. His eyes express powerful resolve, and there is a quality which his son Francis described as characteristic of him – ‘a noble air of strong and generous conviction’. Perhaps this was the photograph that Darwin sent to Germany at the request of a ‘psychological society’ for phrenological analysis at a ‘public discussion’ there. He was later amused to learn that one of the speakers declared that he had ‘the bump of reverence developed enough for ten priests’. Even Henry Fairfield Osborn, a devoted Darwinian, recorded in his journal after an encounter with the great man in 1879, ‘his features are not good’; yet ‘his benevolent blue eyes . . . almost concealed below the overhanging brows . . . seemed to have a vision of the entire living world and . . . gave one the impression of translucent truthfulness’. This impression was captured by Cameron with great skill: in fact, her image of Darwin was such as to offset the accusations of amorality and atheism that were still commonplace in reviews of his books, and multiplied after publication of Descent of Man. Indeed, such ennobling images of Darwin fed into a perception of the superior enlightenment of British society, where the new scientific ideas could flourish without state or church persecution: a perception which surfaces so frequently in the cartoons envisioning him as the declared enemy of obscurantism.    

Surprisingly, Cameron herself thought that it was ‘Not a very successful picture, although Mr. Darwin was very pleased with it’. In fact he provided a handwritten endorsement, which was often reproduced in facsimile on the mounts of the prints: ‘I like this photograph very much better than any other which has been taken of me’. The force of the compliment is slightly lessened by the fact that, in ‘Annals of My Glass House’, Cameron puts almost the same form of words into the mouth of another revered sitter, Tennyson. Nevertheless, this photograph of Darwin was highly favoured, and had a formative influence on actual perceptions of him, in a constant interplay between the icon and the actuality. Ernst Haeckel recalled his first impressions of Darwin on a visit to Down House in 1866: He had ‘a Jupiter-like forehead, highly and broadly arched, as in the case of Goethe, and deeply furrowed by the plough of mental labour . . . I fancied a lofty world-sage out of Hellenic antiquity – a Socrates or Aristotle – stood alive before me’. The profile was the favoured form of portraiture for unworldly thinkers, from ancient medals and cameos to (for example) Sir Joshua Reynolds’s picture of Dr Johnson discoursing; and Cameron’s emphasis on Darwin’s domed skull is attuned to nineteenth-century physiognomic notions of its significance as a marker of high intelligence.  

Relations between Cameron and the Darwin family continued to be very cordial, and, according to Francis Darwin in Life and Letters, Darwin ‘always retained a warm feeling of friendship for her’. She ‘seemed so pleased’ when Darwin confided that Hooker had been pleased with her. Darwin wrote to Hooker in August 1868,  ‘How about Photographs? Can you spare time for a line to our dear Mrs Cameron? She came to see us off & loaded us with presents of Photographs, & Erasmus called after her “Mrs Cameron there are six people in this house all in love with you”. When I paid her: she cried out “oh what a lot of money” & ran to boast to her husband!!’ Hooker had evidently been asked to take on the role of her agent at the BAAS conference. He reported to Darwin at the end of August, ‘I have between £8 & £9 to hand over to Mrs. Cameron for sale of photographs, cheifly [sic] yours, of which 8 or 10 went off; but it is far too big for travellers to carry away.’ The prints from Cameron’s photographs in fact generally measured about 28–30cm. vertically. Although the profile photograph of Darwin was reproduced as a lantern slide and as a ‘carte’ or ‘cabinet’ picture, reduction in scale entailed a loss of most of the tonal subtlety of the original; as Darwin complained in a letter to Alfred Russel Wallace, the image became ‘heavy and unclear’. These photographs were therefore very difficult to reproduce in the publications of the day. In Cameron’s eyes, they were not candidates for mass replication, but individual works of art on a par with Old Master or academy paintings. They were sold by Colnaghi and other dealers alongside fine engravings, and were destined for framing, albums, or books and art periodicals illustrated with high quality photogravures. 

  • physical location glass negatives and prints of the profile portrait at English Heritage, Down House. Many other copies exist. 

  • accession or collection numbers EH88202894; 88202895; 88204450; 88204438, with a printed facsimile of Darwin’s signature.  

  • copyright holder English Heritage 

  • originator of image Julia Margaret Cameron 

  • date of creation July – August 1868 

  • computer-readable date 1868-07-01 to 1868-08-31 

  • medium and material albumen or silver chloride photographic prints 

  • references and bibliography Lady Elizabeth Rigby Eastlake, ‘Photography’, Quarterly Review, 101 (April 1857), 2 parts, part 2, pp. 442–468. Darwin’s letters to Hooker, 17 [Aug. 1868] and 23 Aug. [1868] (DCP-LETT-6321 and 6327); Hooker to Darwin, 30 Aug. 1868 (DCP-LETT-6333). Darwin’s letter to Wallace, 5 Dec. [1869] (DCP-LETT-7020). William Darwin, letter to his father, 10 July [1878], asking him to autograph the mounts of two copies of Cameron’s photograph, for presentation to the American palaeontologist Othniel Charles Marsh, who was then in London (DCP-LETT-11597F). ‘Professor Haeckel on Darwin’ in Times (28 Sept. 1882), p. 6. Francis Darwin (ed.), The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, 3 vols (London: John Murray, 1887), vol. 1, pp. 45, 141; vol. 3, pp. 92, 102. Violet Hamilton (ed.), ‘Annals of My Glass House’, Julia Margaret Cameron’s autobiographical sketch of c.1874, first published posthumously by her son H.H.H. Cameron in the catalogue of an exhibition, Mrs Cameron’s Photographs, at the Camera Gallery, London, in 1889: online at, accessed March 2020. Alfred Lord Tennyson and His Friends: A Series of 25 Portraits and Frontispiece in Photogravure from the Negatives of Mrs Julia Margaret Cameron and H.H.H. Cameron (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1893) (copy in National Portrait Gallery, Ax29139). Henrietta Litchfield (ed.), Emma Darwin: A Century of Family Letters, 1792–1896, 2 vols (London: John Murray, 1915), vol. 2, pp. 190–191. Tristram Powell (ed.), Victorian Photographs of Famous Men & Fair Women by Julia Margaret Cameron, with introductions by Virginia Woolf and Roger Fry, 1st ed. 1926 (London: Hogarth Press, 1973), pp. 24–5, 30. Henry Fairfield Osborn, Impressions of Great Naturalists, 2nd ed. (New York and London: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1928), pp. 12, 51–2. Helmut Gernsheim, Julia Margaret Cameron: Her Life and Photographic Work, 2nd ed. (London: Gordon Fraser, 1975), pp. 37, 190. Pam Roberts, ‘Julia Margaret Cameron: A Triumph over Criticism’, in Graham Clarke (ed.), The Portrait in Photography (London: Reaktion Books, 1992), pp. 47–70. 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 (pp. 271–274). Julius Bryant, ‘Darwin’s Down House: creating the “lived-in” look’, Collections Review, 2 (London: English Heritage, 1999), p. 107. Browne, Charles Darwin: The Power of Place. Volume II of a Biography (London: Jonathan Cape, 2002), pp. 298–302. Julian Cox, Colin Ford and Philippa Wright, Julia Margaret Cameron: The Complete Photographs (London: Thames and Hudson, 2003), pp. 26, 291–2, 317. Browne, ‘Looking at Darwin: portraits and the making of an icon’ in Isis, 100:3 (Sept. 2009), pp. 542–570 (p. 563). Kathryn Hughes, Victorians Undone: Tales of the Flesh in the Age of Decorum (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017), pp. 71f., ‘Charles Darwin’s beard’, especially pp. 127–132. Lantern slide (undated) accessible via, ID 5140671. J. van Wyhe, ‘Iconography’, pp. 167–169.    



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