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Darwin Correspondence Project

4.2 Augustus Earle, caricature drawing

The paucity of evidence for Darwin’s appearance and general demeanour during the years of the Beagle voyage gives this humorous drawing of shipboard life a special interest. It is convincingly attributed to Augustus Earle, an artist who drew topographical and figure scenes, often featuring the social life of naval officers and lower ranks. Earle had already travelled widely in Australia, Tasmania and New Zealand before joining the Beagle voyage as ‘Artist Supernumerary’. Entries in Darwin’s diary show that he often went ashore for coastal walks with Earle in April-May 1832, and Leonard Bell has suggested that Earle, with his keen interest in natural phenomena as well as in native peoples, may well have stimulated Darwin’s thoughts about both. However, Earle had to resign his post and leave the ship in late 1832 or 1833 due to illness, and he subsequently returned to London. The drawing may date from September 1832, when Darwin was bringing many giant fossils and animal specimens onto the ship from the terrain of the Bahia Blanca region of Argentina, and his prominence in the drawing seems to reflect the relaxed intimacy between the two men.   

A handwritten title describes the scene as the ‘Quarter Deck of a Man of War on diskivery [sic] or interesting Scenes on an Interesting Voyage’. Darwin is the tall figure with a jutting brow and deep-set eyes, to the right of centre. He is shown wearing a top hat and tail coat: men of a social rank equivalent to officers in the British navy were expected to be clean-shaven and formally dressed when they went ashore during voyages, although, as Darwin himself mentioned in his journal, they allowed their beards to grow when they were at sea. Darwin is further identifiable by the long speech-balloon over his head; this refers jokingly to his zest for insect collecting, which was unabated. He scrutinises a specimen, and says, ‘observe the legs are long, and the palpi are strongly toothed on the inner side – I think the whole insect appears of a deep chesnut [sic] brown colour with a yellowish cast on the abdomen, its history is but little known but there can be no doubt of its being of a predacious nature – what do you think Mr -- ?’. At Darwin’s feet are fossil bones variously labelled (in a clockwise progression) ‘Antidiluvian’ [sic], ‘Fossils’, ‘os femoris’ and ‘Tusk 4003 BC’. According to Archbishop Ussher’s calculations in the seventeenth century, the world had been created one year earlier than this, in 4004 BC. The spelling of ‘antediluvian’ as ‘antidiluvian’ may be another jesting reference to the invalidation of the old biblical notions of the creation and Noah’s flood, in the light of modern geology.  

The uniformed man addressed by Darwin may be the ship’s surgeon Benjamin Bynoe, who was also a naturalist and became especially close to Darwin; the plants in his hand and at his feet strengthen this supposition, as Bynoe is known to have collected plants for consumption as antiscorbutics. Other labelled objects and speech balloons show that members of the rather motley crew are bringing aboard geological specimens for ‘the Capstain’ [sic], presumably FitzRoy. He has been identified as the man seen in the distance, with epaulettes on his coat, apparently looking at one such specimen and saying, ‘This is certainly something new! It can’t be actenalite [actinolite]! It may be shorelite [shorlite]! I think it must be tremalite [tremolite]’; the choice of a back view for this figure tactfully avoids any hint of insubordinate caricature. The man with side whiskers next to him is meant for John Clements Wickham, who is known to have complained, albeit good-humouredly, about the obstruction of the decks by Darwin’s haul of large specimens. Here he is saying, ‘There is no such thing as walking the deck for these cursed Specimens. I wish I was down along to Dover.’ Henrietta Litchfield in fact remembered her father describing, ‘how Wickham the first Lieutenant – a very tidy man who used to keep the decks so that you cd. eat your dinner off them – used to say “If I had my way, all your d—d mess would be chucked overboard & you after it, old Flycatcher.”’ The sailors at the margins of the group are taking bearings with nautical and surveying instruments at FitzRoy’s command, while on the left the ship’s cat sniffs at a bundle of dead birds and a ‘flying monkey’ being brought on board, presumably to be added to Darwin’s collection of specimens. 

The circumstances in which Earle produced the watercolour, and what happened to it subsequently, are unknown. Janet Browne has suggested that an oil painting by Earle, now in the National Maritime Museum, Divine service as it is usually performed on board a British frigate at sea (exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1837, and therefore probably painted in 1836), also represents the Beagle company, including Darwin; but it is difficult to see a likeness in the figure she indicates.   


  • physical location unnamed private collection; provenance from an American private collection 

  • copyright holder the owner. Permission to use the image may be sought via Sotheby’s and the owner’s agent. 

  • originator of image Augustus Earle (attributed) 

  • date of creation probably Sept. 1832 

  • computer-readable date c.1832-09-01 to 1832-09-30 

  • medium and material watercolour and ink on paper 

  • references and bibliography Henrietta Litchfield’s recollections of her father Charles Darwin: manuscript in the Darwin archive, DAR 262. Algernon Graves, The Royal Academy of Arts: A Complete Dictionary of Contributors, vol. 3 (London: Henry Graves and George Bell & Sons, 1905), p. 3, no. 323, Earle’s Divine service exhibited in 1837. Article on Augustus Earle by Bernard Smith in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, vol. 1, 1966. Alan Moorehead, Darwin and the Beagle (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971), pp. 65-8. Jocelyn Hackforth-Jones, Augustus Earle, Travel Artist: Paintings and Drawings in the Rex Nan Kivell Collection, National Library of Australia (London: Scolar Press, 1980), p. 149. Janet Browne, Charles Darwin: Voyaging. Volume 1 of a Biography (London: Pimlico, 1995), pp. 223f., 326-7. Leonard Bell, ‘Not quite Darwin’s artist: the travel art of Augustus Earle’, Journal of Historical Geography, 43 (Jan. 2014), pp. 60-70. Sotheby’s sale, English Literature, History, Children’s Books and Illustrations L15408 (15 December 2015), lot 10, detailed catalogue entry. Van Wyhe, ‘Iconography of the Beagle’, p. 16, and ‘Iconography’, p. 133, with assumed date of 1832.  


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