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Darwin Correspondence Project

4.41 'Punch', Sambourne cartoon 2

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In October 1881, Darwin was included in Linley Sambourne’s series of ‘Punch’s Fancy Portraits’ of celebrities as No. 54. While the caption recurs to the old theme of Darwin’s views on human ancestry, the drawing contains a more topical reference to his just-published book, The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms. This was very warmly received by reviewers and the reading public. It was entertaining and informative about a hitherto unconsidered subject – the beneficial role of worms in forming a fertile soil and protectively burying ancient monuments; the accompanying verses in Punch, titled ‘The Worm Turns’, acknowledged its ‘patient toil’. The book also displayed the aspects of Darwin’s character which people found most sympathetic – his close, patient and sustained study of nature and his lack of pretension.  

Sambourne showed Darwin sitting on the ground, apparently wearing a farm labourer’s smock. Behind his digging fork is a box of ‘worms for bait’. The book lying open on his right is punningly titled on the spine ‘Diet of Worms’; and the ‘politic worm’ mentioned in the caption as absorbing Darwin’s attention is a reference to Shakespeare – Hamlet tells Claudius that ‘a certain convocation of politic worms’ are already devouring the body of the dead Polonius. The implication of mortality in the subject of Darwin’s last book could not fail to suggest both pathos and humility; his face expresses thoughtful uncertainty, and the enormous erected worm forms a question mark, which again suggests ruminations on the meaning of life and death. This characterisation of Darwin formed a studied contrast to the cartoon on the facing page in this issue of Punch – ‘After the Battue – An Autumn Idyl’, where boozy sportsmen loll over their picnic hamper, while servants rake together the mounds of dead game birds. 

  • physical location Cambridge University Library. 

  • accession or collection number T992.b.1 

  • copyright holder Syndics of Cambridge University Library 

  • originator of image Linley Sambourne 

  • date of creation October 1881 

  • computer-readable date 1881-10-1 to 1881-10-21 

  • medium and material wood engraving from Sambourne’s drawing 

  • references and bibliography Punch vol. 81 (22 October 1881), p. 190. Janet Browne, Charles Darwin: The Power of Place. Volume II of a Biography (London: Jonathan Cape, 2002), p. 490. Jonathan Smith, Charles Darwin and Victorian Visual Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), pp. 272-4. 


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