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Darwin Correspondence Project

4.16 Joseph Simms, physiognomy

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In September 1874, the American doctor Joseph Simms, then on a three-year lecture tour of Britain, sent Darwin a copy of his book, Nature’s Revelations of Character; Or, Physiognomy Illustrated. He was seeking a public endorsement of the work from Darwin and pointed out that the latter was himself mentioned in it. In the many editions of Nature’s Revelations, there was indeed a wood-engraved head of Darwin, taken straight from one of Elliott and Fry’s photographs of c.1871, showing him in three-quarter view. In Simms’s array of physiognomic types, Darwin represents ‘Observativeness [sic] Large’. ‘Full long arching eyebrows, which are lowered down close to the eyes, are the visible physiognomic expression of a desire and capacity for observation. Darwin is an excellent example of large observation.’ Simms acknowledged that there was a pathognomic element in this phenomenon: the habit of focused scrutiny ‘will ultimately have the effect of inducing the muscles called so frequently into action permanently to assume their eagerly observant position’. However, most nineteenth-century physiognomic and phrenological works, including Simms’s, reflected a strong belief in determinism, or a kind of mystic symbolism, in the relationship between character and physique. Charles Hartley, in Face and Form (1885), remarked, ‘Deep-set eyes, overhung and guarded by the prominent brows . . . symbolise the mind that, with natural power and inclination, looks out into the visible world.’ In the New York paper The Evening World in 1891, it was the shape of Darwin’s eyelids which indicated this exceptional power of accurate observation. The portrayals of Darwin in later life, whether in photography or painting, evidently both played on and gave rise to such beliefs. 

Simms’s interest in physiognomy was not, however, restricted to the face. In his letter to Darwin he explained, ‘I wish a drawing of your right foot, very much, for a work I am intending to print at some future time.’ Darwin was to place his foot on white paper and draw round it (‘Better without stocking’), and to give his height ‘while standing in stockings’. As a sop, he offered a naively patronising ‘compliment’: ‘While I was travelling in Germany I often heard it from scientific men that Mr. Darwin produced the deepest and best work of modern times.’ Whether Darwin was affronted or merely entertained by this missive is not known, but it touched a rather sore point in relation to his own views on the meaningfulness or otherwise of physical features. Those views are too complex and conflicted to be satisfactorily summarised in a catalogue entry. Darwin was simply amused by FitzRoy’s near-rejection of him as a member of the Beagle crew, on account of the shape of his nose, and by the belief of a group of German phrenologists that his head showed ‘the bump of Reverence developed enough for ten Priests’. Lorenzo Niles Fowler’s analysis of his character in The Phrenological Magazine – supposedly deduced from Rejlander’s photograph – must also have seemed laughably wide of the mark (see separate catalogue entry). However, Darwin accepted the validity of his own father’s observation when he returned from the Beagle voyage, that the shape of his head was ‘quite altered’ as an effect of intellectual development, and some of his letters hint at a sympathetic interest in physiognomic and phrenological notions. Some members of Darwin’s circle, notably Francis Galton and James Paget, certainly credited such beliefs. Darwin was apparently convinced of his own ugliness, particularly in relation to his short fleshy nose, which was at variance with traditional images of intellectualism, and therefore he was anxious on occasion to disprove such associations. In a letter to Lyell of 21 August 1861, echoed in one to Asa Gray, Darwin argued against a belief in providentialism - the idea that variations in species had been predestined and formed by God’s will. ‘Will you honestly tell me . . . whether you believe that the shape of my nose (eheu) was “ordained & guided by an intelligent cause.”’ Yet Darwin’s protest left open the question of whether this feature had, like the formation of an orchid, a functional and evolutionary significance, or was merely fortuitous. 

  • physical location Cambridge University Library 

  • accession or collection number Rare books, 8300.c.57 

  • copyright holder Syndics of Cambridge University Library 

  • originator of image unknown engraver, after a photograph by Elliott and Fry 

  • date of creation c.1872 

  • computer-readable date c.1872-01-01 to 1872-12-31 

  • medium and material wood engraving 

  • references and bibliography James Paget, ‘Physiognomy of the human form’, Quarterly Review, 99:198 (Sept. 1856), pp. 452-491. Joseph Simms, Nature’s Revelations of Character; Or, Physiognomy Illustrated, published by the author in 1872-3, pp. 191-2; the book was subsequently reissued in numerous popular editions with variant titles down to the 1890s. Darwin’s letters to Lyell, 21 Aug. [1861] (DCP-LETT-3235) and to Gray, 17 Sept. [1861] (DCP-LETT-3256]. Simms’s letter to Darwin, 14 Sept. 1874 (DCP-LETT-9637; from DAR 177:164). Charles Hartley, Face and Form: Their Expression of Mind, Character and Thought, Compiled from Lavater (London: F. Pitman and Joseph Poole, 1885), p. 20. Francis Darwin (ed.), The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, 3 vols (London: John Murray, 1887, 1888), vol. 1, pp. 59-60, 63-4; vol. 2, p. 378.  Nora Barlow (ed.), The Autobiography of Charles Darwin (London: Collins, 1958), pp. 57, 72, 79. Jonathan Smith, Charles Darwin and Victorian Visual Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), pp. 209-210. Article on Joseph Simms, online at, accessed April 2020. Among a large literature on the history of physiognomy, craniology and phrenology: Roger Cooter, The Cultural Meaning of Popular Science: Phrenology and the Organization of Consent in Nineteenth-century Britain (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), and Sharrona Pearl, About Faces: Physiognomy in Nineteenth-century Britain (Cambridge, Mass., and London: Harvard University Press, 2010). J.  van Wyhe, ‘Iconography’, p. 145, refers to the article on ‘Character in eyes’, in The Evening World (2 Jan. 1891), p. 2. 


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