skip to content

Darwin Correspondence Project

3.7 Leonard Darwin, photo on verandah

Like the anonymous photograph of Darwin on horseback in front of Down House, Leonard Darwin’s photograph of him sitting in a wicker chair on the verandah was originally just a family memento. However, as Darwin’s high posthumous reputation depended on the association between his scientific achievements, his personal character and his domestic ambience, such visual glimpses of life at Down increasingly entered the public sphere. Thus a wood engraving of Leonard Darwin’s photograph featured in the Century Magazine in January 1883, as a prelude to Alfred Russel Wallace’s article ‘The debt of science to Darwin’. Furthermore, Wallace’s article was illustrated with Alfred Parsons’s attractive pictures of Down – its gardens, greenhouses and paths – as the essential context of Darwin’s hallowed endeavours: his ‘loving, patient, and reverent’ study of nature. Subsequently, Francis Darwin was allowed to re-use the Century’s engraved portrait as the frontispiece to volume 2of the Life and Letters of his father. It is noticeable that the engraver, Thomas Johnson, had toned down the distracting details of the verandah’s patterned floor tiles and the scatter of shapes seen through the drawing-room window in Leonard’s photograph, giving a stronger focus on Darwin’s dignified figure. However, the engraving was less than ideal for the purposes of a frontispiece, since Darwin is turned to the spectator’s left, away from the title page. In the caption to the frontispiece and in his catalogue of portraits of Darwin, Francis Darwin tentatively dated the photograph ‘1874?’, but explained that his brother Leonard had kept no record of when he had taken it. It cannot be earlier than 1873, since the verandah at Down House was constructed only in 1872. However, there is an old handwritten inscription on the back of DAR 225.1, which dated it to ‘c.1880’, and this suggestion has been followed by some scholars such as Julius Bryant. However, John van Wyhe proposes 1878, as Emma Darwin’s diary records that Leonard came home to Down House several times during that year - on four occasions over the summer months.     

There is a striking and perhaps not entirely fortuitous resemblance between Leonard’s photograph of his father and Whistler’s famous portrait of Thomas Carlyle, painted in 1872-3. Both images presented an intellectual of the time as a near-profile figure, seated in front of a blank wall, in an austere planar composition interrupted by rectilinear forms (framed pictures, a window), with all attention directed to the subject’s characterful head. Darwin sits in his habitual pose – hands clasped, legs crossed – but appears more relaxed than in the photographs taken by commercial studios. He leans back in order to stretch out his long legs, which caused discomfort when chairs were too low for him. Yet, for all its informality, this photograph apparently served as the main source for Boehm’s commemorative portrayal of Darwin in the marble statue installed in the Natural History Museum, and its use contributed to the happy blend of naturalness and monumental dignity in Boehm’s concept. John van Wyhe has discovered another derivation in a lunette painted by Pasquale Baroni, in the Museum of Human Anatomy, University of Turin. 

  • physical location Darwin archive, Cambridge University Library 

  • accession or collection number two copies: DAR 140.1.30 and DAR 225.1  

  • copyright holder Syndics of Cambridge University Library 

  • originator of image Leonard Darwin 

  • date of creation not established; after 1872, possibly 1880 

  • computer-readable date c.1873-01-01 to 1880-12-31 

  • medium and material albumen photographic print 

  • references and bibliography frontispiece (facing p. 323) to Century Magazine, 25:3 (Jan. 1883), with a facsimile of Darwin’s signature, and signed by the engraver Thomas Johnson; accompanying Wallace’s article on pp. 420-432. Francis Darwin (ed.), Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, 3 vols (London: John Murray, 1887), vol. 2, frontispiece, and vol. 3, appendix III, ‘Portraits’, p. 372. Darwin Centenary: The Portraits, Prints and Writings of Charles Robert Darwin, exhibited at Christ’s College, Cambridge (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1909), p. 19, no. 92; p. 23, no. 118. Janet Browne, Charles Darwin: The Power of Place: Volume II of a Biography (London: Jonathan Cape, 2002), pp. 363, 400-1. Julius Bryant, ‘Darwin at home: observation and taste at Down House’, in Diana Donald and Jane Munro (eds), Endless Forms: Charles Darwin, Natural Science and the Visual Arts (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009), pp. 29-46 (p. 45). Browne, ‘Looking at Darwin: portraits and the making of an icon’, Isis, 100:3 (Sept. 2009), pp. 542-570 (pp. 560-1). J. van Whye, ‘Iconography’, pp. 130, 177. 


In this section: