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Darwin Correspondence Project

3.5 William Darwin, photo 2

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Darwin’s son William, who had become a banker in Southampton, took the opportunity of a short visit home to Down House in April 1864 to photograph his father afresh. This half-length portrait was the first to show Darwin with a recently grown beard, and the change in his appearance startled even close friends to whom Darwin sent prints. Hooker responded in jocular spirit: ‘Glorified friend! Your photograph tells me where Herbert [the history painter John Rogers Herbert] got his Moses for the Fresco in the House of Lords. – horns & halo & all – Well done William.’ Friends were ‘calling out’ for copies, and would be ‘enchanted’ by Darwin’s new persona. When Asa Gray received the photograph, he reacted with more concern, perhaps noting Darwin’s rather melancholy expression after his protracted illness: ‘the venerable beard gives the look of your having suffered, and . . . of having grown older. I hope there is still much work in you, - but take it quietly and gently!’ However, an old friend from Christ’s College days, Benjamin Dann Walsh, thought Darwin looked little changed, except for his baldness and beard. Ernst Haeckel and the French botanist Charles Victor Naudin also received copies of William’s photograph, Darwin explaining to the latter that he had ‘no other’ to offer: no other that he liked, evidently.  

Whatever Darwin’s practical reasons for growing a beard – he said that shaving aggravated his eczema – it was to change fundamentally the public’s perceptions of him. As Hooker had suggested with his allusion to Herbert’s Moses bringing down the tables of the law to the Israelites, a newly unveiled mural in the House of Lords, a beard evoked the idea of patriarchal wisdom and authority. For example, in a ‘Panorama of Man’ in the Annual of Phrenology and Physiognomy of 1876, a bearded man with a lofty brow and domed bald head represented ‘Wise’, set against the distorted features of ‘Ignorant’, ‘Insane’ and ‘Idiotic’. Darwin himself, in a letter of 1848, had jested that an acquaintance with a newly grown beard must be trying to look like ‘Jupiter tonans’ (thundering). By the 1860s, beards were of course more fashionable, but the dramatic luxuriance of Darwin’s beard (untrimmed except round his mouth), combined with his shaggy eyebrows, gave his head a kind of elemental dignity – setting off the arch of his brow and his penetrating eyes. This image of him was fundamental to the classic portrayals of later years, from Julia Margaret Cameron’s photographs to the oil portrait by John Collier.  

Despite its lack of technical polish and its blurred, shadowy tones, William Darwin’s photograph of his father was soon preferred to the products of Maull and Polyblank’s studio. Vincent Brooks made a lithograph vignette version of it to illustrate an article, ‘Darwin and his teachings’, in The Quarterly Journal of Science in April 1866. This crayon-like drawing has a facsimile of Darwin’s autograph signature and an inscribed date of 1866 - the year of publication in the Quarterly Journal, not the date of the photograph’s origination (but this was a cause of later confusion). According to a letter from Darwin’s daughter Henrietta to her brother George, the photograph was also reproduced as a medallion, which circulated amongst Haeckel’s students in Jena. It was, furthermore, steel-engraved by August Weger as a half-length portrait in an oval format, to serve as the frontispiece to the German edition of Origin published in 1867, again with a facsimile of Darwin’s signature, and this was re-used for the edition of 1876. William Darwin himself must have commissioned a ‘carte de visite’ head-and-shoulders vignette version of his half-length photograph, since the trademark on the back of a surviving example is that of S.J. [Samuel James] Wiseman, a Southampton photographic firm. It seems that proof copies of this vignette version were among the prints that William posted to his father in May 1864, since the photograph subsequently sent to Asa Gray, and referred to in Gray’s correspondence with Darwin, can be tentatively  identified with a vignette still preserved at Harvard. An autograph collection of documents which passed from Asa Gray’s widow Jane to the archive of the Gray Herbarium, Harvard University, contains (loose within a scrapbook) a very good vignette copy of William’s photograph. This is on thick card and probably originated as a ‘carte de visite’, slightly cropped, but there is no indication of a commercial source. It is simply inscribed by hand on the back in pencil ‘C. Darwin 1864’ – the accuracy of the dating suggesting that this was indeed Darwin’s gift to Asa Gray. However, no original copy of William’s full half-length photograph of his father has so far been located in any public collection.  

  • physical location Darwin archive, Cambridge University Library (‘carte de visite’ vignette version) 

  • accession or collection number DAR 225.112-113 

  • copyright holder Syndics of Cambridge University Library 

  • originator of image William Erasmus Darwin  

  • date of creation April 1864 

  • computer-readable date 1864-04-01 to 1864-04-30 

  • medium and material albumen photographic print 

  • Information kindly provided by Danielle Castronovo, archivist in the Gray Herbarium, Harvard University, about the uncatalogued photograph of Darwin there, which is in the Jane Gray autograph collection, vol. 2, Clark-Green, call no. gra00084. Darwin’s letter to Joseph Hooker, who was then in Calcutta, 10 May 1848 (DCP-LETT-1174). William Darwin’s letter to his father [19 May 1864] sending prints of his recent photograph (DCP-LETT-4502). Darwin’s letter to Asa Gray, 28 May [1864], enclosing the photograph showing his ‘venerable’ appearance with his new beard (DCP-LETT-4511), and Gray’s reply, 11 July 1864 (DCP-LETT-4558). Darwin’s letter to Hooker, 10 June [1864], enclosing the photograph (DCP-LETT-4525), and Hooker’s reply, [11 June 1864] (DCP-LETT-4529). Darwin’s letter to Naudin, 8 Dec. [1864] (DCP-LETT-4707); Naudin’s gushing acknowledgement, 18 June 1865 (DCP-LETT-4863). Letter from Benjamin D. Walsh to Darwin, 1 March 1865 (DCP-LETT-4778). Haeckel’s letter to Darwin, 28 Jan. 1866 (DCP-LETT-4985). Lithographic reproduction by Vincent Brooks, in Quarterly Journal of Science, 3:10 (April 1866), facing p. 151. Darwin, über die Entstehung der Arten durch natürliche Zuchtwahl, 3rd German edition, from 4th English edition (Stuttgart: E. Schweizerbart, 1867), frontispiece engraved by August Weber at Leipzig; also in 6th edition (1876). Mary Cowling, The Artist as Anthropologist: The Representation of Type and Character in Victorian Art (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), fig. 33. 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. 274-5). Kathryn Hughes, ‘Charles Darwin’s beard’ in Victorians Undone: Tales of the Flesh in the Age of Decorum (London: 4th Estate, 2017), pp. 71-150. [Geoffrey Belknap], Darwin’s photographic portraits, at the Darwin Correspondence Project, accessed Feb. 2020. J. van Wyhe, ‘Iconography’, pp. 113, 163. 


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