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Darwin Correspondence Project

3.20 Elliott and Fry, c.1880-1, verandah

In photographs of Darwin taken c.1880-1, the expression of energetic thought conveyed by photographs of earlier years gives way to the pathos of evident physical frailty. While Collier’s oil portrait of this time emphasises Darwin’s benign but penetrating gaze, the photographs suggest sad introspection, even absence of mind. This is especially true of a new group of four or more photographs taken by the firm of Elliott and Fry, showing Darwin on the verandah of Down House - leaning against a column, or in one case evidently seated there. The brim of his hat throws a shadow over his eyes and his hands are wrapped in his cloak, adding to the impression of melancholy and withdrawal from the social world, while the bare and tangled stems of a climbing plant, wound round the column, augment the wintriness of the image. How far these qualities truly represent Darwin’s prevailing mood, or are, rather, a projection of his character for public sympathy and admiration is thrown into doubt by the comments of the botanist Alphonse de Candolle, who visited Down in the autumn of 1880. Candolle, like some other visitors, found his host happier and more animated than he had been in early career: ‘Il avait l’oeil vif et une expression enjouée, tandis que ses photographies montrent plutôt sa conformation de tête, d’un philosophe de l’antiquité.’   

One of the photographs was wood-engraved by Gustav Kruell to serve as the frontispiece to volume 3 of Francis Darwin’s Life and Letters of his father (1887), and there it was dated 1881. However, another photograph from this group, which belonged to Henrietta Darwin and is now in the Darwin archive, was dated ‘c.1880’, and this date was also tentatively ascribed to them in the catalogue of the Darwin Centenary exhibition at Cambridge in 1909. Alternatively, the catalogue of an exhibition, Memorials of Charles Darwin, at the Natural History Museum, London, also in 1909, listed ‘Four photographs of Darwin by Messrs. Elliott and Fry, taken in 1882, i.e. the year of his death’. There seems to be no documentary evidence for a precise dating, and it is not clear on what basis the photograph of Darwin seated on the verandah is dated by the National Portrait Gallery (NPG X5938) to 29 November 1881. However, Janet Browne points out that the cold autumn of 1881, following the death of Darwin’s brother Erasmus, may be a likely date for these photographs: Francis Darwin recollected his father’s air of sadness at that time. In a letter to Hooker of 15 June 1881, echoed in another to B.J. Sulivan of 1 December 1881, Darwin complained of feeling very old, lacking ‘the heart or strength to begin any investigation lasting years’, but at the same time ‘despondent’ about himself owing to his relative inactivity.   

All these Elliott and Fry photographs were reissued after Darwin’s death as ‘cartes’ and ‘cabinet’ pictures, with a commemorative function. 

  • physical location Darwin archive, Cambridge University Library 

  • accession or collection numbers DAR 140.1.32; 225.123-125; 257.8-9 

  • copyright holder Syndics of Cambridge University Library 

  • originators of image photographic firm of Elliott and Fry 

  • date of creation c.1880-1881 

  • computer-readable date c.1880-01-01 to 1881-12-31 

  • medium and material albumen photographic prints in ‘carte’ and ‘cabinet’ formats 

  • references and bibliography letters from Darwin to Hooker, 15 June 1881 (DCP-LETT-13207) and to B.J. Sulivan, 1 Dec. 1881 (DCP-LETT-13525). Alphonse de Candolle, Darwin, considéré au point de vue des causes de son succès et de l’importance de ses travaux, pamphlet based on his article in Archives des Sciences de la Bibliothèque Universelle, 7 (May 1882). Francis Darwin (ed.), The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, 3 vols (London: John Murray, 1887), vol. 3, frontispiece and p. 356. Darwin Centenary: The Portraits, Prints and Writings of Charles Robert Darwin, exhibited at Christ’s College, Cambridge, 1909 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1909), p. 20, no. 98. British Museum (Natural History), Special Guide no. 4, Memorials of Charles Darwin, 2nd ed. (London: Trustees of the British Museum, 1910), p. 21, no. 108. (Adrian Desmond and James Moore, Darwin (London: Michael Joseph, 1991), p. 655. 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. 278-9). Browne, Charles Darwin: The Power of Place. Volume II of a Biography (London: Jonathan Cape, 2002), p. 489. Browne, ‘Looking at Darwin: portraits and the making of an icon’, Isis, 100:3 (Sept. 2009), pp. 542-570 (pp. 564-5, 569). [Geoffrey Belknap], ‘Darwin’s photographic portraits’, online at the Darwin Correspondence Project’, accessed March 2020. J. van Wyhe, ‘Iconography’, pp. 179-81. 


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