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Darwin Correspondence Project

4.35 Frederick Sem, caricature

A caricature drawing of Darwin by Frederick Sem was one of a series of his portrait caricatures acquired by Queen Alexandra for her scrapbook or album, which has been preserved in the Royal Collection. Darwin is shown leaning on a lectern with uplifted hand, as though addressing a learned audience, and a roll of paper projecting at an angle from the pocket of his coat is inscribed ‘SPECIES’ – a reference to Origin of Species. However, his shadow on the wall takes the form of a monkey with a saucily erected tail. At bottom left is an inscription, ’Science – Proffr Darwin’.  

Frederick Sem was French-born, but is known to have come to London c.1871, finding work as a cartoonist for The Hornet. It was this magazine which in 1871 invented the idea of transforming Darwin into a monkey, in the wake of publication of The Descent of Man. Sem was mentioned in the Hornet’s pages on 12 April 1873 as one of a crowd of cartoonists vying for page space: and ‘M.[Monsieur] Sem’ was ‘a host in himself’. This idea of a ‘host’ was not simply a reference to his prolific inventions for the Hornet, but alluded to an ambitious independent project which Sem undertook in the 1870s – a series of coloured caricature drawings of famous people, variously titled Sem’s Pantheon of Celebrities of England or Celebrities of the Day. Clearly the inspiration came from Vanity Fair’s long series of colour lithographs of ‘Men of the Day’ in various walks of life, or perhaps even the wood engravings from ‘cartoon portraits’ by Frederick Waddy, published in Once a Week in 1872. Like the latter, Sem’s drawings feature a large head, only slightly caricatured, emerging from a much smaller body in characteristic or fanciful dress. The important difference from the Vanity Fair and Once a Week series is that Sem’s watercolour drawings, while eminently collectable, seem never to have been engraved or lithographed for publication in journals or in book form. They have thus been scattered among many collections, with important groups at the Folger Shakespeare Library, the Garrick Club, the National Portrait Gallery and the Royal Collection. A pictorial design for a title page for Sem’s Pantheon of Celebrities of the Day in the Folger’s collection, dated February 1876, portrays Sem himself, together with a putative or prospective publisher, James W. Lock of the Strand in London. It also shows the antiquarian and writer Thomas Francis Dillon Croker, who may have initiated the project. Some of the Folger’s series of caricatures of writers and theatre people are signed by the sitters, or there are accompanying letters to Croker, variously dated between 1852 and 1877, which provided samples of their autograph signatures.  

Evidently Sem’s Pantheon, like the long-running Vanity Fair series of caricatures, began to be divided into subsets, each representing one type of public figure. Queen Alexandra’s scrapbook in the Royal Collection contains inter alia a set of his drawings of politicians, dateable on the basis of the allusions in their inscriptions to c.1880-1, i.e. some years later than the design for a Pantheon title page mentioned above. However, the drawing of Darwin belongs to a different group in Queen Alexandra’s collection, one where each portrait caricature singly represents a field of activity and achievement. Darwin is ‘Science’, Carlyle ‘Philosophy’, Tennyson ‘Poetry’, Leighton ‘Art’, and so on. The set is not precisely dateable, but there seems to be some evidence for a date in the mid to late 1870s: Frederic Leighton is named as ‘Fred Leighton RA’, with no reference to the knighthood which he received in 1878. A date in the 1870s is certainly the most likely in the case of the Darwin cartoon, given its joking reference to his theories on human descent, which was common in satires of that decade. 

  • physical location Royal Collection, Windsor Castle 

  • accession or collection number RCIN 928408 

  • copyright holder Royal Collection Trust 

  • originator of image Leon Frederick Sem; signed bottom right with his monogram 

  • date of creation unknown; probably mid-1870s to c. 1880 

  • medium and material pencil and watercolour; mounted in an album which is lettered on the spine ‘Queen Alexandra Scrapbook’ 

  • references and bibliography information kindly provided by Carly Collier, Assistant Curator of Prints and Drawings, Royal Collection. The Era newspaper (18 July 1875), p. 11, notice of an exhibition of 400 drawings, ‘Sem’s Gallery of Celebrities’, at James Lock’s ‘Pictorial Repository’ in the Strand, London (reference noted from ‘The Garrick Club Collections’, see below). Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington DC, details and images of a collection of 63 watercolour drawings for ‘Sem’s Pantheon’, Folger MS W.b.94, at https://collation.folger.edu/2013/04/the-mysterious-sem, accessed January 2020. ‘The Garrick Club Collections: Sem, Frederick’, information compiled by Marcus Risdell at http://garrick.ssl.co.uk/names/AUTH2605, accessed January 2020. Delia Millar, The Victorian Watercolours and Drawings in the Collection of Her Majesty the Queen, 2 vols (London: Philip Wilson, 1995), vol. 2, p. 962, no. 6152 (RL 28408). 


   

 

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