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Darwin Correspondence Project

3.2 Maull and Polyblank photo 1

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The rise of professional photographic studios in the mid nineteenth century was a key factor in the shaping of Darwinian iconography, but Darwin’s relationship with these firms was from the start a cautious and sometimes a difficult one. In 1854-5 the newly established firm of Henry Maull and George Henry Polyblank planned a series titled ‘Photographic Portraits of Living Celebrities’, which was collected in book form, with biographical notes, as the Literary and Scientific Portrait Club. Darwin was chosen for inclusion, and he was invited for a sitting in their London studio, probably in 1855. Portrait photography of this kind quickly burgeoned into a multi-faceted commercial enterprise: by 1856 Maull and Polyblank were offering photographs in a variety of formats – ‘cabinet’ pictures or ‘cartes de visite’, even stereoscopic or colour-tinted. However, in terms of style and presentation, their art was still at an early, unsophisticated stage of development. As a result, many of the men who joined the ‘Club’ – they were predominantly scientists and doctors – posed rather stiffly in their formal clothes. Yet Darwin seems peculiarly ill at ease. He is seated by a table in a conventional way, but his arm is tensed, his hands clenched, his expression a fierce stare at the camera: the mental agitation registered in Maguire’s lithograph a few years earlier is now intensified. Darwin wrote to Hooker in dismay when the prints arrived: ‘if I really have as bad an expression, as my photograph gives me, how I can have one single friend is surprising’. If Hooker wanted an image of him, a photograph of Samuel Laurence’s drawing would be much preferable. When Hooker nevertheless, faute de mieux, gave wall space in his study to the Maull and Polyblank photograph, Darwin pleaded with him to take it down and burn it, putting something better in its place. ‘It makes me look atrociously wicked’. Hooker himself acknowledged in a letter of 1864 that the existing photographs of Darwin were ‘not pleasing’, or, as Asa Gray had put it, not ‘very perfect’. This was a time when an exchange of signed photographs between scientists was a mark of mutual recognition and honour, so these shortcomings were a mortifying matter for Darwin.  

One might relate the qualities of the Maull and Polyblank photograph to his state of inner conflict in the years leading up to the publication of Origin of Species in 1859. As early as 1844, he had told Hooker that destroying the religiously grounded belief in immutability of species felt ‘like confessing a murder’. Certainly, there is a striking contrast between this troubled image and the calm, philosophical aura of photographs taken by members of Darwin’s family or by other sympathisers from the 1860s onwards. The 1855 photograph, at first available only to fellow-members of the ‘Club’, understandably failed to gain wide currency. Yet in 1909 it was chosen by the proprietors of the American journal Popular Science Monthly – with some retouching which softened the expression – to illustrate an article on Darwin’s life and works. The article marked not just the centenary of Darwin’s birth, but also fifty years since the publication of Origin of Species: the text on the page facing the photograph emphasised his boldness in the truth-telling of Origin, and the ‘cataclysm’ his arguments initially created. The editor of the Monthly evidently preferred this authentic image of Darwin foreseeing crisis to the ‘somewhat idealised’ portrayal of him which Maull and Polyblank produced a short time later. 

The first, unvarnished portrayal of Darwin by Maull and Polyblank was exhibited in the 1909 Darwin Centenary exhibition at Christ’s College, Cambridge, and this copy now belongs to the College. It had been given by Darwin to the naturalist Frederick Daniel Dyster, whose nephew Francis H.H. Guillemard lent it to the 1909 exhibition, and subsequently bequeathed it to the College in 1934. A pencilled note written by Guillemard on the back of the frame explains that he had been in touch with Francis Darwin, who thought that ‘it was probably taken in the year 1854, but he had never seen it’. A slot in the mount reveals a slip of paper bearing Darwin’s autograph signature – actually his endorsement on a cheque, which Francis Darwin had perhaps given to Guillemard for this new purpose. In albums of the period, photographs are often accompanied by such autographs, to suggest a personal gift to the owner.   

  • physical location Darwin archive, Cambridge University Library 

  • accession or collection numbers DAR 140 1.32 and DAR 140 1.25 (the latter is a photogravure by Emery Walker, dated 1912; the photograph itself is here dated 1854, and accompanied by a facsimile of Darwin’s signature). 

  • copyright holder Syndics of Cambridge University Library 

  • originators of image Henry Maull and George Henry Polyblank, photographers 

  • date of creation 1854 or early 1855 

  • computer-readable date 1854-01-01 to 1855-05-01 

  • medium and material albumen photographic print 

  • references and bibliography National Portrait Gallery, London, online catalogue of the Literary and Scientific Portrait Club photographs published by Maull and Polyblank, NPG P106. Letters from Darwin to Hooker, 27 May [1855] (DCP-LETT-1688) and 17 Dec. [1860] (DCP-LETT-3024). Letter from Hooker to Darwin, 24 Jan. 1864 (DCP-LETT-4396). Francis Darwin (ed.), The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, 3 vols (London: John Murray, 1887, 1888), vol. 2, p. 23; vol. 3, p. 298. Darwin Centenary: The Portraits, Prints and Writings of Charles Robert Darwin, exhibited at Christ’s College, Cambridge, 1909 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1909), p. 19, no. 91. Henry Fairfield Osborn, ‘Life and works of Darwin’, Popular Science Monthly, 74 (April, 1909), pp. 318-319, 413. Gertrude Mae Prescott, ‘Fame and photography: portrait publications in Great Britain, 1856-1900’, PhD thesis, University of Texas, 1985. 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. 259-69). Browne, ‘Looking at Darwin. Portraits and the making of an icon’, Isis, 100:3 (Sept. 2009), pp. 542-570 (pp. 549-550). Christine Woollett, ‘The Maull photographic portrait collection held at the Royal Society’, Notes and Records of the Royal Society, 61 (Jan. 2007), pp. 69-74. [Geoffrey Belknap], ‘Darwin’s photographic portraits’, online at the Darwin Correspondence Project, accessed Jan. 2020. John van Wyhe, Charles Darwin in Cambridge: The Most Joyful Years (New Jersey: World Scientific, 2014), pp. 130-132. J. van Wyhe, ‘Iconography’, pp. 161-2, detailing the surviving variants of the photograph.  


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