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Darwin Correspondence Project

3.9 Leonard Darwin, photo on horseback

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It is so rare to encounter an image of Darwin in a specific locale that a family photograph of him riding his horse Tommy takes on a special interest. He is at the front of Down House, the door of which is open; it seems as though he is about to set out on one of his regular local rides, undertaken on medical advice for the sake of his health, and is rather formally dressed in a top hat and dark coat. Tommy, less self-conscious than his rider, has evidently moved his head during the exposure.  According to Darwin’s biographers, Desmond and Moore, Darwin himself ‘thought he looked like the postman’: he inscribed one copy of the photo, now at Down House, ”Hurrah – no letters today!” (EH88202292). Despite these concrete details, both the authorship and circumstances of the photograph are uncertain, since it was apparently not circulated outside the family during Darwin’s lifetime. When shown in the Darwin centenary exhibition at Christ’s College, Cambridge in 1909, it was described simply as ‘Portrait of Charles Darwin on his cob “Tommy”’, without any indication of the photographer or date. The fact that the photograph was lent to the exhibition by Darwin’s son William suggested to Janet Browne that it was he, an enthusiastic photographer, who took the picture – presumably on a visit home from Southampton; but family members had often inherited or collected the items they lent to the 1909 exhibition. Geoffrey Belknap and John van Wyhe state that the photograph was taken by Leonard Darwin, who often photographed his father in the 1870s and possibly earlier, with a suggested dating of c.1866-8; Darwin’s daughter Henrietta Litchfield thought it was ‘c.1868’ (inscription on the copy in the Darwin archive). Although documentary evidence is lacking, the attribution of the photograph to Leonard seems plausible. It was, alas, lent by William and Leonard to the exhibition accompanying the first International Eugenics Conference in 1912, but without indications of date or authorship; a reviewer of this exhibition in the Pall Mall Gazette found it more interesting than ‘a whole gallery of portraits and silhouettes . . . championing the cause for the betterment of the race’.   

Henrietta recalled in Emma Darwin: A Century of Family Letters, ‘My father had a bad accident in April, 1869. His quiet cob Tommy stumbled and fell, rolling on him and bruising him seriously. It was a great misfortune, for Tommy was soon considered to be unsafe for him to ride, and he never afterwards found a quite suitable horse. We all regretted Tommy, for he was not only perfectly quiet but brisk and willing, and with most easy paces.’ Henrietta’s brother George reported to her in a letter of February 1870, ‘I have been doing all I can to stop Father riding Tommy, as I’m sure he’s not safe – but I’m afraid he’s going on at present.’ Henrietta, a great animal lover and defender, did not elaborate on Tommy’s fate thereafter. It is known, however, that Darwin himself was very solicitous over the treatment of horses. His erstwhile friend, Frances Power Cobbe, recorded that her companion Mary Lloyd lent him a pony to ride on holiday in Wales: ‘His gentleness to this beast and incessant efforts to keep off the flies from his head’ was one of the ‘very pleasing traits in his character’. On his home turf, Darwin persuaded the RSPCA to prosecute a man living in Down village in 1852 on a charge of cruelty to his horses, securing a conviction and fine at Bromley magistrates’ court; and c.1866, acting as the local magistrate, he wrote a warning letter to another local farmer, whose horses’ necks were ‘badly galled’, saying that he, Darwin, must and would intervene again, ‘for the sake of humanity’ if nothing was done.  

  • physical location Darwin archive, Cambridge University Library. Further copies at Down House, in the possession of English Heritage (EH88202292 and EH88207651) 

  • accession or collection number DAR 225.116 and DAR 225.138 

  • copyright holder Syndics of Cambridge University Library 

  • originator of image unknown: assumed to be Leonard Darwin 

  • date of creation unknown (c.1866-8) 

  • computer-readable date c.1866-01-01 to 1868-12-31 

  • medium and material albumen photographic print 

  • references and bibliography Darwin’s draft letter to a local farmer, c.1866, about the state of his horses, DAR-LETT-4963. Emma Darwin’s diary in the Darwin archive, Cambridge University Library, recording Darwin’s accident when riding Tommy on 9 April 1869. Letter from George Darwin to his sister Henrietta, February 1870, in DAR 251.2243, Darwin archive, Cambridge University Library. Henrietta Litchfield, ‘Sketches for a biography’, pp. 14a-16, DAR 262.23.1, Darwin archive, Cambridge University Library. Francis Darwin, The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, 3 vols (London: John Murray, 1887, 1888), vol. 1, pp. 117-118; vol. 3, p. 200. Life of Frances Power Cobbe, by Herself , 2 vols (London: Richard Bentley & Son, 1894), vol. 2, p. 124. 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. 93. First International Eugenics Congress, London, July 24th to July 30th, 1912; University of London, South Kensington, Catalogue of the Exhibition (London: Charles Knight, [1912]), p. 1, B5. Fae Brauer, ‘Framing Darwin: a portrait of eugenics’, in Barbara Larson and Fae Brauer (eds), The Art of Evolution: Darwin, Darwinisms, and Visual Culture (Hanover, NH, and London: University Press of New England, 2009), pp. 124-154 (p. 139). Henrietta Litchfield, Emma Darwin: A Century of Family Letters, 1792-1896, 2 vols (London: John Murray, 1915), vol. 2, p. 195. Adrian Desmond and James Moore, Darwin (London: Michael Joseph, 1991), illus. 71. Janet Browne, Charles Darwin: The Power of Place. Volume II of a Biography (London: Jonathan Cape, 2002), pp. 264, 310-11. Browne, ‘Looking at Darwin: portraits and the making of an icon’, Isis, 100:3 (September 2009), pp. 542-570 (especially pp. 548, 551). [Geoffrey Belknap], ‘Darwin’s photographic portraits’, at the Darwin Correspondence Project, accessed February 2020. J. van Wyhe, ‘Iconography’, p. 164. 


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