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Darwin Correspondence Project

3.4 William Darwin, photo 1

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In the 1860s Darwin increasingly turned to two of his sons - first to William and later to Leonard - for the fashioning of his image. William, the eldest, apparently took up photography c.1857, when still in his teens, and Darwin gladly bought him the necessary equipment. William’s portraits of his father, with their amateurish technique and dim lighting, were very different from those produced by the commercial photographic studios, but offered a simpler, more informal and sympathetic image of him, which Darwin himself much preferred.  

On 11 April 11 1861, Darwin wrote to the American botanist Asa Gray, who had become a valued friend, thanking Gray for his photograph and promising one of himself when it became available. The latter was almost certainly the second photograph taken in the London studio of Maull and Polyblank, which Darwin described as ‘an ugly affair’. In a postscript to this letter, however, Darwin explained that he was enclosing, for now, ‘a little Photograph made this morning by my eldest Son’. A photograph of Darwin which still exists in the Gray Herbarium, showing him as he looked in the early 1860s before he grew a beard, must surely be the one mentioned in this letter, allowing it to be precisely dated. This identification is strengthened by the fact that the Gray Herbarium’s photograph appears to be unique: the only surviving print. It seems likely that William produced many such photographs as experiments, without any thought of circulating them beyond the family, but some were dispersed among Darwin’s friends and correspondents. In November 1862 Darwin wrote to an old Beagle shipmate, Philip Gidley King, fondly recalling the past. ‘I have no proper carte [de visite], but I send a photograph of myself made 3 or 4 years ago by my eldest son (now a partner in a Bank, -- this shows how old I am) & which is a good likeness of me.’ If this was another print of the photograph sent to Asa Gray, Darwin was hazy on its dating, but it may have been an earlier one of William’s, taken c.1859, which has been lost to history. Very similar letters offering or enclosing photographs by William went to the botanist Daniel Oliver in September 1862, to the botanist Alphonse de Candolle in January 1863, and to the naturalist Roland Trimen, then in Cape Town, in May 1863. Again, it is unclear which photographs these were.      

  • originator of image William Darwin 

  • date of creation 11 April 1861 

  • computer-readable date 1861-04-11  

  • medium and material albumen photographic print 

  • references and bibliography letter from Darwin to his son William in autumn 1857, remarking, ‘It seems very odd not having you rushing up & down the House with your photographs’ (DCP-LETT-1619). Letter from Darwin to Asa Gray, 11 April [1861] (DCP-LETT-3115). Letters from Darwin to Daniel Oliver, [17 Sept. 1862], (DCP-LETT-3709), and to Philip Gidley King, 16 Nov. [1862] (DCP-LETT-3809). Letter from Darwin to Alphonse de Candolle, 31 Jan. [1863] (DCP-LETT-3957). Letter from Darwin to Roland Trimen, 23 May [1863] (DCP-LETT-4179]. Francis Darwin (ed.), the Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, 3 vols (London: John Murray, 1887, 1888), vol. 2, p.371. 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), p. 257.  [Geoffrey Belknap], ‘Darwin’s photographic portraits’, online at the Darwin Correspondence Project, accessed Feb. 2020. J. van Wyhe, ‘Iconography’, pp. 162-3. Information kindly provided by Danielle Castronovo, archivist at Harvard University. 


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