skip to content

Darwin Correspondence Project

4.10 'Hornet' caricature of Darwin

Caricatures of Darwin that depicted him as a semi-ape are numerous and well known, but they marked a specific historical moment. Most date from the period following the publication of Descent of Man in 1871-2, extending through the 1870s and widely imitated in journals published in other European countries. Darwin’s personal appearance only became familiar to the general public when photographs of him began to proliferate from the mid to late 1860s onwards, on the strength of the fame of Origin of Species. Before that time, cartoons ridiculing his ideas on human ancestry that appeared in Punch and other journals had tended to feature anthropomorphised apes and other animals, rather than caricaturing Darwin himself. Although humans’ evolutionary link with apes was only hinted at in Origin, Huxley’s polemical writings of c. 1858 onwards had already made the idea familiar: it was central to the famous BAAS debate at Oxford of 1860. The idea of visualising Darwin himself in quasi-simian form seems to have come with this large anonymous lithograph in The Hornet of March 1871, A Venerable Orang-Outang. A Contribution to Unnatural History. Here an unflattering portrayal of Darwin’s head is attached to the body of a crouching ape, which in turn has some quasi-human physical features. The artist must have seen portrait photographs of Darwin by Ernest Edwards, dating from the mid-1860s, or possibly the earliest ones produced by the firm of Elliott and Fry. Whereas ‘artistic’ photographers like Julia Margaret Cameron and Darwin’s son Leonard idealised his appearance through lighting and camera angle, conferring an impression of thoughtful melancholy and refinement, the commercial studios tended to reveal more of Darwin’s actual features – the fleshy nose, and untidy moustache and beard cut awkwardly at the mouth, which the caricaturist has exploited. In the accompanying commentary, the editor of the Hornet pretends to deplore ‘the wild flights of my incorrigible artist. I told him most clearly and positively to draw me a life-like portrait of that profound philosopher, Mr. Darwin’, and not to ‘meddle for comic effect with the sober lineaments of the original thinker . . . The scamp has got confused; jumbled memories of the philosopher’s face with monkey’s till he didn’t know t’other from which’.  

The supposed confusion validated Darwin’s own theory of human origins, and the ‘comic effect’ of the drawing does not seem to imply either rejection of, or hostility towards, the ideas expressed in The Descent of Man. Darwin himself took the caricature in good part - or professed to. In 1871 James Hague, an American mineralogist with a special interest in coral islands, was invited to the London house of Darwin’s brother, Erasmus, while the Darwin family was staying there, and in conversation Darwin remarked to Hague that the public at large seemed to have accepted his views in Descent without much shock or dissent. Hague agreed and mentioned a joke about it in Punch, which ‘seemed to amuse him very much. “I shall get it to-morrow,” he said: “I keep all those things”’, and one of his sons fetched a copy of the Hornet. ‘Darwin showed it off very pleasantly, saying, slowly and with characteristic criticism, “The head is cleverly done, but the gorilla [sic] is bad: too much chest; it couldn’t be like that.” The humorists have done much to make Mr. Darwin’s features familiar to the public, in pictures not so likely to inspire respect for the author of The Descent of Man as they are to imply his very close relation to some slightly esteemed branches of the ancestry he claims; but probably no one has enjoyed their fun more than he.’  

  • physical location Darwin archive, Cambridge University Library. Several other copies are extant. 

  • accession or collection number DAR 141.5-6 

  • copyright holder Syndics of Cambridge University Library 

  • originator of image unknown 

  • date of creation published on 22 March 1871 

  • computer-readable date 1871-03-01 to 1871-03-21 

  • medium and material lithograph 

  • references and bibliography The Hornet, 5:115 (22 March 1871), p. 308 and following plate. [James Duncan Hague], ‘A reminiscence of Mr. Darwin’, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, 69:413 (Oct. 1884), pp. 759-63. Emma Brace (ed.), The Life of Charles Loring Brace (New York: Scribner’s, 1894), p. 319: account of a visit to Down in 1872, when Darwin told Brace ‘with glee’ about the insulting monkey comparisons and general abuse he received in letters from various clergymen. Janet Browne, Charles Darwin: The Power of Place. Volume II of a Biography (London: Jonathan Cape, 2002), pp. 377-9. Browne, ‘Charles Darwin as a celebrity’, Science in Context, 16:1-2 (2003), pp. 175-194 (pp. 186, 189). Browne, ‘Darwin in caricature: a study in the popularization and dissemination of evolutionary theory’, in Barbara Larson and Fae Brauer (eds), The Art of Evolution: Darwin, Darwinisms, and Visual Culture (Hanover, NH, and London: Dartmouth College Press, University Press of New England, 2009), pp. 18-39 (pp. 27, 30). 


In this section: