skip to content

Darwin Correspondence Project

4.55 Harry Furniss caricature

< Back to Introduction

Harry Furniss’s caricature of Darwin is in a set of seventy-two pen and ink drawings by this artist now in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery, London. They were acquired in 1947-8 from Theodore Cluse, who, acting on behalf of Furniss’s heirs, selected material from the unsorted contents of the cartoonist’s house. While the drawings formed yet another gallery of portrayals of eminent Victorians, they were not planned as a series, but had probably been reproduced in various publications at widely differing dates. For example, the one of John Stuart Mill appears in Harry Furniss at Home, Written and Illustrated by Himself, published in 1904, and had possibly appeared elsewhere before then. Unfortunately the drawing of Darwin has not been dated, and its original purpose is unknown. Cluse made handwritten extracts from the private ledger in which Furniss had recorded his output; this listing passed to the NPG, but the drawing of Darwin is not among the dated entries. In the NPG archive, a list of the 1947 acquisitions included a note: ‘Charles Darwin. Not registered’.  

The drawing of Darwin was reproduced in Furniss’s Some Victorian Men, published in 1924, but it is likely to date from many years earlier, whether before or after Darwin’s death is unclear. The rendering of his features, which exaggerates the shadowy recession of his eyes between the overhanging brow and the blunt fleshy nose is reminiscent of one of Ernest Edwards’s less flattering photographs of Darwin in three-quarter view dating from c.1866-7 (reproduced in the Illustrated London News in 1871), and it is even more closely akin to the primitive-looking characterisation of Darwin in Alphonse Legros’s medal of 1881. Furniss must have chosen these models as apt for his satiric purpose. In Some Victorian Men he remarked, ‘It was somewhat unlucky for Darwin, but fortunate for the caricaturists, that popular opinion credited him with the theory that man originated from monkeys. He was uncommonly like one himself. His intellectual head in profile bore a remarkable resemblance to the ape – his bushy eyebrows, his deep-set penetrating eyes, short nose and his thought-wrinkled face.’ Artists used to believe that men’s heads and faces ‘gradually take their expression and form from the subject with which they are mentally engrossed. Yet I only recollect one man mentioned as an illustration of that absurd theory – and he was Darwin’ – absurd because Darwin’s features did not change at all over his lifetime. For Furniss, the pseudoscientific physiognomic or phrenological notions that affected the Victorians’ interpretations of character were equally absurd: Darwin himself learned that the shape of his head ‘”had been the subject of a public discussion – at a German psychological society – and one of the speakers declared that I had the bump of reverence developed enough for ten priests.” And at the time he was an Agnostic!’ 

Furniss’s generation of Punch cartoonists was the first to benefit from the introduction of photographic process printing in place of laborious wood engraving, as a way of reproducing quick hand-drawn sketches. Now the artist’s verve, spontaneity and individualism were all-important. In the case of Furniss, there was even a theatrical element. He toured the country giving ‘lectures’ such as ‘The Humours of Parliament’ (1891), where his coloured caricature drawings on lantern slides were projected onto a large screen. Sometimes he actually drew large sketches with a brush and black ink in front of the theatre audience. His own exuberant acting out of the characters and his witty commentary on the drawings combined the auditory and the visual. One reviewer commented, ‘when he impersonates some of the members [of parliament] whom he caricatures the portrait at his side seems positively to be speaking.’ The subjects of these ‘lectures’ were not purely political. In Family and Friends, Furniss’s grandson remarked, ‘During this era “intellectual evenings” were popular and profitable . . . The country was overflowing with brilliant minds, and the competition was fierce. Oscar Wilde . . . Charles Darwin . . . Charles Dickens . . . William Thackeray’. Furniss was ‘a bubbling raconteur and cleverly combined stories and artwork’. It is known that in 1905 Furniss did indeed lecture on ‘Boz: His Art, His Artists, and His Admirers’ – he had already illustrated a multi-volume edition of Dickens’s novels. It is thus very possible that the caricature of Darwin originated as a lantern slide exhibit or a freehand drawing in another such ‘entertainment’, which might explain the figure’s rather stagy pose. A reviewer of the Furniss memorial exhibition held after his death in 1925 observed, ‘he always drew at the top of his voice.’ 

  • physical location National Portrait Gallery, London (a copy of Furniss’s book Some Victorian Men is in Cambridge University Library (454.c.92.42)  

  • accession or collection number NPG 6251 (16) 

  • copyright holder National Portrait Gallery 

  • originator of image Harry Furniss; signed ‘Hy. F’ bottom left 

  • date of creation unknown 

  • medium and material  pen and Indian ink over pencil 

  • references and bibliography ‘Court Circular’ report on Furniss’s ‘Boz’ lecture, in Times (27 Feb. 1905), p. 7. ‘Mr Furniss on “The Humours of Parliament”’, Times (1 May 1891), p. 10, and advertisement for Furniss’s show, quoting the Whitehall Review, in Times (9 May 1891), p. 1. Furniss, The Confessions of a Caricaturist, 2 vols (New York and London: Harper & Bros., 1902), vol. 1, pp. 88, 91, 295. ‘Obituary. Mr. Harry Furniss’, Times (16 Jan. 1925), p. 14. ‘Art exhibitions’, the Furniss memorial exhibition at the Fine Art Society, Times (24 April 1925), p. 8. Harry Furniss at Home: Written and Illustrated by Himself (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1904), p. 29. Harry Furniss, Some Victorian Men (London: John Lane, the Bodley Head, and New York: Dodd, Mead, 1924), pp. 27-9. Harry Furniss [grandson of the artist], Family and Friends (Victoria, Canada: Trafford, 2003), pp. 67f. 


In this section: