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Darwin Correspondence Project

3.18 Elliott and Fry photos, c.1869-1871

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The leading photographic firm of Elliott and Fry seems to have portrayed Darwin at Down House on several occasions. In November 1869 Darwin told A. B. Meyer, who wanted photographs of both him and Wallace for a German publication, that he was unwilling to sit for a new one, but added, ‘Photographs can be procured at Messrs Elliot [sic] & Fry or Messrs Edwards & Bult . . . Messrs Elliot & Fry are the last who have taken me, & they came down here on purpose’. Payments to the firm on 25 July 1869 and 5 April 1870 in Darwin’s banking account must relate to this enterprise. Moreover, in December 1869, Darwin told Wallace that, among the available photographs of him, ‘I like best the profile of Ernest Edwards, or a ¾ face vignette which Messrs Elliot & Fry (Baker St) & which is a strong likeness & pleasing are now making some copies of for us’; but as yet he had none to hand that he could send to Wallace.  

Elliott and Fry evidently approached Darwin again in the spring of 1871, with a request that he would sit for another portrait. In response, he explained that he had just given that favour to Rejlander, so Elliott and Fry might not think it worth their while, from a commercial point of view, to come down to Down House. They nevertheless persisted with the project – an indication of the profits that were to be expected from sale of the photographs. Although they had a luxuriously furnished, state-of-the-art studio in London, with a variety of painted backdrops from which the sitter could choose, they were willing to send a photographer to Down again for a simpler portrayal. On 2 August 1871, Darwin wrote,  ‘Many thanks for the Photographs which are very good’. This sounds as though the firm’s photographer had produced more than one view of him, and in fact a group is known, showing a range of slightly different poses. The problem remains of discerning which of Elliott and Fry’s widely disseminated images of Darwin were taken in summer 1869, and which in summer 1871: the indication in Darwin’s letter, quoted above, that one of the 1869 photographs was a three-quarter view, is not much help. However, two of the group now in the Darwin archive were dated by Darwin’s daughter Henrietta on the backs to 1869. By 1871-2 some of Elliott and Fry’s photographs were serving as convenient sources for caricatures, while in 1873 derivative engravings appeared in several journals, so suggestions that they date from the later 1870s are clearly wide of the mark. As regards Darwin’s appearance, he does not look older than in Julia Margaret Cameron’s photographs of him taken in 1868, or Rejlander’s of spring 1871.  

One of this group of photographs, of which there is a print in the Darwin archive (DAR 225.117), shows a three-quarter length view of him – sombre in expression, hands clasped, legs crossed – which carries his dates of birth and death, and must therefore have been reissued commemoratively. Darwin’s daughter Henrietta owned this, and endorsed it ‘abt. 1870’, then crossed this date out in favour of 1869 – the date which John van Wyhe assigns to it. In another of Elliott and Fry’s photographs, Darwin sits sternly erect; in yet another he appears to have his arms crossed, and in his expression there is the ghost of a smile. He is also shown with his head turned nearer to a profile or nearer to a frontal view. In all of them Darwin is wearing a distinctive waistcoat, with a spotted pattern - the same waistcoat, apparently, that he is wearing in Julia Margaret Cameron’s photographs taken in 1868. An outlier to the Elliott and Fry group is a photograph issued in ‘carte’ form by John Gloag Murdoch, a publisher who from c.1871 onwards produced high-quality reproductions of paintings and photographs, and also photographic albums. While not identical with any of the trademarked Elliott and Fry photographs, it is strongly akin to them, so perhaps Murdoch bought the copyright in that particular image. To add to the complexities, John van Wyhe, in his ‘Iconography’ of Darwin portraits, identifies some of the Elliott and Fry group as having been taken in 1869 and 1871, but dates others (still with the spotted waistcoat) to 1874.  

Elliott and Fry were very successful as society photographers, producing images of many of the celebrities of the day, which were widely marketed. Thus the photographs of Darwin were frequently reissued in different versions and formats as ‘cartes de visite’ or ‘cabinet’ pictures, sometimes with a facsimile of his signature; they are often found in photographic collections of the period, for example in albums 40 and 101 in the National Portrait Gallery. An idealised version of Darwin’s head from one of the Elliott and Fry photographs was wood engraved for Popular Science Monthly in February 1873, and the same block was re-used as the frontispiece to the June 1882 issue, which had two obituary articles on Darwin. It had also appeared in another American journal, The Library Table in November 1876. The Pictorial World of 6 June 1874 published a wood engraving which seems almost to exaggerate the shagginess of Darwin’s hair, eyebrows and beard, while a tidier lithographic vignette taken from the same image was set in an elaborate ornamental frame and published in The Examiner on 11 October 1879. There was even a wood-engraved version in the lurid Illustrated Police News, accompanying a notice of Darwin’s death in 1882. A vignette version of the most severe likeness of Darwin was ‘Engraved for Eclectic by Geo. E. Perine N.Y.’, the Eclectic Magazine being a New York publication. Another rendering was adapted (in reverse and without acknowledgement) to form the frontispiece of the third French edition of Descent of Man, translated by Edmond Barbier and published in Paris by C. Reinwald in 1881. The frontispiece to Henry Alleyne Nicholson’s Natural History: Its Rise and Progress in Britain (1886) is another instance. There were certainly many more such usages of the Elliott and Fry images of Darwin, often at third hand or in reworked versions, in journals published in other European countries and in the USA; for example, an engraving signed by A. Gusman in Le Magasin Pittoresque, c. 1882 (Bridgeman Images), and a painting by Ernst Hader based on one of the photographs, which was re-photographed and published by Sophus Williams of Berlin in 1885 (Tucker collection, New York Public Library archive). Elliott and Fry’s rather unflattering portrayal of Darwin, especially of his blunt nose and untidy beard, was equally a gift to the caricaturists, and many of the 1870s cartoons showing him as a whiskered semi-ape were indebted to this source. It is significant that none of these 1869–71 Elliott and Fry photographs were mentioned by Francis Darwin in his catalogue of portraits in Life and Letters; nor was any shown in the 1909 centenary exhibition in Cambridge. Nevertheless, Darwin thought well enough of them to agree to another session at Down with their photographer in 1881. 

  • physical location Darwin archive, Cambridge University Library 

  • accession or collection numbers DAR 225.117 and 257.10 

  • copyright holder Syndics of Cambridge University Library  

  • originator of image the photographic firm of Joseph John Elliott and Clarence Edmund Fry, 55 Baker Street, London 

  • date of creation undated, but identifiable as belonging to groups of photographs taken in summer 1869 and summer 1871, possible also in 1874. 

  • computer-readable date c.1869-05-01 to 1870-07-31 

  • medium and material albumen photographic prints and Woodburytypes etc. 

  • references and bibliography letters from Darwin to A.B. Meyer, 27 November [1869], (DCP-LETT-7014), and to Wallace, 5 December [1869], (DCP-LETT-7020).  Letters from Darwin to Elliott and Fry, 23 April [1871], (DCP-LETT-7710A) and [2 August 1871], (DCP-LETT-7893A). Photographs in Darwin archive (DAR 225.117), and in the Natural History Museum (NHM 1456470). Mohr collection of Darwiniana, Huntington Library, San Marino: box 1, folder 6, ‘cartes’ of Darwin’s head in an oval vignette, issued by Elliott and Fry or John Murdoch. Wood engraving in Popular Science Monthly vol. 2 (Feb. 1873), accompanying a review of Expression of the Emotions, pp. 434-49, and in vol. 21 (June 1882), as frontispiece, accompanying two obituary articles, pp. 260-8. The same image appeared in The Library Table (Nov. 1876), accompanying an article, ‘Darwin’, pp. 143-4 (DAR 140.1.9). Wood engraving in The Pictorial World (6 June 1874), p. 228 (DAR 140.1.3). Another wood engraving (an idealised vignette in an oval frame) in The Gardeners’ Chronicle (6 March 1875), p. 309, illustrating an article on Darwin’s influence on horticulture (DAR 140.1.4) was reprinted in 1881 (DAR 140 1.33) and for an obituary article in a supplement to the same journal (22 April 1882) (DAR 215.22c). It was copied in a drawing by Henri Meyer in Le Journal Illustré of 14 May [1882?] (DAR 138.1). Wood engraving in Illustrated Police News (29 April, 1882), p. 4. Lithograph by Vincent Brooks Day & Son, one of a series of eminent men portrayed in The Examiner (11 Oct. 1879), facing p. 1312. Engraving by Perine after an Elliott and Fry photograph, for the Eclectic Magazine, in the collection of the Royal Society, London (image no. RS.11957). A further derivative is an intaglio engraving signed ‘E.W. Andrews fecit’ in the Natural History Museum (NHM 1456469), and a wood-engraved vignette version illustrated Revd John Vaughan’s article on the ‘Boyhood of Charles Darwin’ in The Boy’s Own Paper, 15:743 (8 April 1893), p. 443. H. Baden Pritchard, The Photographic Studios of Europe (London: Piper and Carter, 1882), pp. 42-5, ‘Messrs Elliott & Fry at Baker Street’. Bevis Hillier, Victorian Studio Photographs from the Collections of Studio Bassano and Elliott & Fry, London (London: Ash and Grant, 1975), pp. 28-30. 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. 253-4). Anon. [Geoffrey Belknap], ‘Darwin’s photographic portraits’, at the Darwin Correspondence Project, accessed March 2020. J. van Wyhe, ‘Iconography’, pp. 141-4, 169-76. 




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