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Darwin Correspondence Project

3.16 Oscar Rejlander, photos

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Darwin’s plans for the illustration of his book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872) led him to the Swedish-born painter and photographer, Oscar Gustaf Rejlander. Rejlander gave Darwin the notes that he had himself made of human gestures and expressions. He also provided many of the photographs which feature in Darwin’s book, and even modelled some expressions himself in front of the camera. The two men kept in touch subsequently: Rejlander sent letters that revealed his mental and physical deterioration in the early 1870s (he died in January 1875), and Darwin assisted him financially on at least one occasion. Already in 1871, their association had extended beyond work on The Expression of the Emotions. In April of that year, Darwin wrote to the London firm of Elliott and Fry, who had asked to photograph him at Down. He would be ‘happy to give [them] a sitting & aid in any way’, but he thought it might not be worth their while financially to make the journey. ‘I lately was several times with Mr Rejlander, who was assisting me on a scientific subject, &, who took so much trouble for my sake that I gladly complied with his request to take several photos of me, and these I imagine he intends to sell to any purchasers’. Phillip Prodger has suggested that Darwin agreed to be photographed by Rejlander as a way of compensating him for the relatively low level of the payments he received for his work on The Expression of the Emotions. Open sale of any portraits of Darwin was likely to be highly remunerative. However, Rejlander seems also to have photographed Darwin’s relatives on request. A family album of ‘cartes de visite’ now in the Huntington Library contains photographs by him of Richard Litchfield (Darwin’s son in law), and another man, tentatively identified as William or Leonard Darwin, as well as the profile of Darwin himself. The reverse of the photograph of Litchfield was inscribed by the sitter: ‘R.B. Litchfield, Down, 31 Aug. 1871’; this was the wedding day of Litchfield and Henrietta Darwin, which Rejlander thus commemorated. Darwin recorded payments to him in May, August and October 1871, and in March and August 1872, but some of these payments, and later ones, may relate to Rejlander’s work on Expression of the Emotions.   

Rejlander had often undertaken portraiture before, but this was not his primary interest. He had made his name with dramatic and allegorical compositions such as The two ways of life (1857), a photograph assembled from a large number of negatives. Rejlander described this controversial practice as ‘art-photography’ or ‘composition-photography’, and justified it as a way of enabling the photographer to manipulate focus and light effects at will, as a painter could do. Often his photographic models were pictured as beggars or pedlars in picturesque rags, to look like genre paintings, and even the sitters in his portrait photographs sometimes seem to be ‘acting a part’. For example, Rejlander showed Gustave Doré sprawling on a chaise longue, his arm thrown back behind his head, paint brushes in hand, as the complete Bohemian.  However, if the photographer had any plans for purveying a fanciful or dramatised portrayal of Darwin, he was evidently thwarted, as probably happened also in the case of the photographs taken by Julia Margaret Cameron. Nevertheless, Rejlander’s transition from pathognomy to portraiture in his work for Darwin must have raised interesting thoughts about the relationship between the individual and the commonality in human traits.  

Darwin is known to have met Rejlander in London in the first week of April 1871, and may have posed in his studio, a few months before the photographer apparently visited Down. The studio had been adapted for the special effects Rejlander hoped to produce, with devices similar to those used by the fashionable photographic firm of Elliott and Fry. The camera was shaded by canopies, forming a dark tunnel, while the sitter was brightly lit from windows above and on one side. Of the five or so known photographs of Darwin, evidently taken at more than one sitting, two survive only in the Moderna Museet, Stockholm. Both portray Darwin in three-quarter view down to knee level; he is brought very close to the eye, filling the frame, as was typical of Rejlander’s photographs. In this way they communicate a sense of Darwin’s commanding intellect and physical presence; one, in particular, reveals Darwin’s tall, thin physique more tellingly than any other representation of him. However, they may have seemed too dramatic to please the Darwin family, and were evidently not approved for general sale. A similar but more distanced knee-length portrayal in the Darwin archive (mistakenly attributed by Nora Barlow, Darwin’s granddaughter, to his son Leonard) was copyrighted by Rejlander in April 1871, and reproduced in the London Journal in June 1872. Darwin also sent it to various contacts, for example to the businessman and ornithologist Henry Eeles Dresser. However, it was a fourth photograph, showing just Darwin’s head and shoulders in profile, which proved overwhelmingly successful, perhaps because of the traditional association between profile heads and the commemoration of famous thinkers, or even the likeness to cameos and medallions. Its endless replication is a striking instance of the dispersal of popular images through the nineteenth-century periodical press.  

On 11 November 1871, Rejlander sent Darwin ‘a bundle of cards’, which were probably ‘carte de visite’ versions of the profile photograph. This supposition is strengthened by the fact that in October 1871 Darwin himself had written to the editor or proprietor of The Illustrated Review, ‘I can have no objection to the portrait & memoir of myself in your Review as proposed. The best photographs of me have been taken by Mr. Rejlander, & as it will save you the trouble I send you one.’ This was the profile view, which was translated into a vignette drawing, and then wood-engraved by R. Taylor; it illustrated an article on Darwin on the front page of The Illustrated Review on 15 November 1871, and was later re-used, with different titling, in The Garden in January 1876. Rejlander’s photograph was re-interpreted in vignette form by Charles Henry Jeens as a steel engraving, which was published in Nature in 1874, and was included in Francis Darwin’s list of canonical portrayals of his father in Life and Letters; Jeens’s image in turn was copied as a wood-engraved illustration in Sarah Bolton’s Famous Men of Science in 1889. Yet another wood-engraved interpretation of the photograph, this one enclosed in an oval frame, appeared in The Graphic in March 1875, and was re-used to illustrate an obituary article in the same journal in April 1882. A coarser wood engraved version adorned Great Thoughts and Christian Graphic in January 1887. The image also appeared in Neue Illustrierte Zeitung (1 October 1876); L’Univers Illustré (29 April 1882); and (reversed) in La Revue Illustrée Universelle de Paris, about 6 May 1882. It even became a lantern slide – the first image in a large set on the theme of evolution, produced by the Manchester firm of slide manufacturers, Flatters and Garnett, c.1901–5. 

The list of derivations from Rejlander’s profile given above is by no means exhaustive. Perhaps the most tendentious use of it was in Lorenzo Niles Fowler’s Phrenological Magazine, where it was analysed in the light of phrenological theory (see separate catalogue entry). 

  • physical location Darwin archive, Cambridge University Library 

  • accession or collection numbers DAR 140.1.5; 140.1.26; 225.114 and115; 225.118; 257.4. 

  • copyright holder Syndics of Cambridge University Library 

  • originator of image Oscar Rejlander 

  • date of creation 1871 

  • computer-readable date 1871-01-01 to 1871-12-31 

  • medium and material albumen photographic prints 

  • references and bibliography O.G. Rejlander, An Apology for Art-Photography, read at a Meeting of the South London Photographic Society, February 12, 1863. Darwin’s letter to his daughter Henrietta of 20 March 1871, re. his plans for a London trip (DCP-LETT-7605). Rejlander’s letter to Darwin, 11 November 1871, saying he had sent ‘a bundle of cards for the £1.1 and thank you – the same for the cheque’. (DCP-LETT-8062, from DAR 176.116). Letters from Darwin to Elliott and Fry, 23 April [1871] (DCP-LETT-7710A), and to the editor of The Illustrated Review, 12 Oct. [1871] (DCP-LETT-8003). Darwin family ‘carte de visite’ album in the Huntington Library, San Marino (Record no. b1859378): presented by Richard Litchfield to a family servant as her leaving present in 1879. Henry Eeles Dresser’s album of letters and autographs in the John Rylands Library, University of Manchester, English MS 1404, pp. 52–3, with a letter to Dresser from Darwin, dated 10 Sept. 1875 (DCP-LETT-13836F), accompanied by Rejlander’s photograph. Wood engraving in The Illustrated Review, 2: 27 (15 Nov. 1871). Wood engraved vignette, paired with one of Huxley, in The London Journal, 55:1426 (8 June 1872), p. 357, illustrating an article  ‘Two great men of our time’, pp. 356–7. Steel engraving by Jeens in Nature vol. 10, ‘Presented to the Subscribers to Nature no.  240 June 4th 1874’. Wood engraving in The Graphic, XI:278 (27 March 1875), p. 301, reprinted in the same journal (29 April 1882), p. 428. Wood engraving in a supplement to The Garden (1 Jan. 1876), serving as frontispiece to an article on Darwin, pp. xi-xii (DAR 140.1.5; also in the Lindley Library, Royal Horticultural Society). Wood engraving on the front page and p. 43 of Great Thoughts and Christian Graphic, VII:160 (22 Jan. 1887), accompanying a laudatory article by Revd R.A. Armstrong. Francis Darwin’s catalogue of portraits of Darwin, in Life and Letters, vol. 3, appendix 3, p. 372. Sarah K. Bolton, Famous Men of Science (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1889), wood engraving facing p. 347. Stephanie Spencer, O.G. Rejlander: Photography as Art (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1985), ch. 2, ‘Portraits’. Article on Rejlander in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography by Juliet Hacking. Leif Wigh et al., Oscar Gustav Rejlander 1813[?]–1875 (Stockholm: Moderna Museet, 1998), and the Museum’s website. Janet Browne, Charles Darwin: The Power of Place. Volume II of a Biography (London: Jonathan Cape, 2002), p. 367. Jonathan Smith, Charles Darwin and Victorian Visual Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), pp. 215–226. Phillip Prodger, Darwin’s Camera: Art and Photography in the Theory of Evolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), pp. 158–175. Geoffrey Belknap, From a Photograph: Authenticity, Science and the Periodical Press, 18701890 (London and New York: Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 2020), pp. 26-30. J van Wyhe, ‘Iconography’, pp. 141–142, 170–172. Lantern slide information accessible via, ID 1000763. 


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