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Darwin Correspondence Project

4.7 'Vanity Fair', caricature

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A letter to Darwin from his publisher John Murray of 10 May 1871 informed him, ‘Your portrait is earnestly desired – by the Editor of Vanity Fair. I hope Mr Darwin may consent to follow the example of Murchison – Bismark [sic] – Ld. Derby &c.’ – in agreeing to be caricatured in Vanity Fair’s pages. Darwin’s first reaction was anything but favourable: ‘I could not endure to give sittings to his artists’. However, he was won round, and the drawing that appeared in 1871 exuded genial sociability. In this it differed strongly from the oil portraits and photographs of him, which stressed high seriousness and philosophical detachment. Yet the Vanity Fair characterisation tallies extremely closely with Francis Darwin’s recollections of his father, both in physical appearance and habits, suggesting that it was drawn from life – and even, perhaps, that it conversely coloured Francis’s memories. ‘When he sat still he often took hold of one wrist with the other hand; he sat with his legs crossed, and from being so thin they could be crossed very far . . . He had his chair in the study and in the drawing-room raised so as to be much higher than ordinary chairs . . . sitting on a low or even an ordinary chair caused him much discomfort . . . His beard was full and almost untrimmed . . . His moustache was somewhat disfigured by being cut short and square across. He became very bald, having only a fringe of dark hair behind. His face was ruddy in colour, and this perhaps made people think him less of an invalid than he was . . . His eyes were bluish grey under deep over-hanging brows, with thick bushy projecting eyebrows . . . When he was excited with pleasant talk his whole manner was wonderfully bright and animated, and his face shared to the full in the general animation . . . He wore dark clothes of a loose and easy fit’.  

Vanity Fair’s friendly and convincing likeness of Darwin took its place in a long series of colour lithographs of ‘Men of the Day’, ‘Statesmen’, and ‘Sovereigns’ which appeared in successive issues of the journal, from its inception in 1868 through the 1870s. Each personality was identified by a motto rather than by his name – in the case of Darwin (‘Men of the Day, No. 33’) it was ‘Natural Selection’. The series included statesmen, clerics, judges, inventors, scientists, writers and artists, and cumulatively created one of those Victorian ‘halls of fame’ where portrayals of men known to the public for their beneficial achievements were intermingled with those of royals and aristocrats. Darwin himself, no longer a controversial or divisive figure, is praised by ‘Jehu Junior’ (Thomas Gibson Bowles, founder of Vanity Fair) in the text commentary which accompanied the caricature, as ‘one of the most accomplished naturalists in existence’. While his theories might remain unproven, he had established an outline of evolution through ‘close converse with the material world in which we live’: ‘even for ordinary men his writings have all the charm of romances.’ 

A large team of artists was involved in the creation of Vanity Fair’s caricature series, including Leslie Ward, Carlo Pellegrini and the versatile French painter James Tissot. John Murray evidently thought that Pellegrini would be chosen to draw Darwin, assuring the latter that this artist was, he believed,  ‘a very decent gentlemanly fellow’. When Francis Darwin lent a copy of the finished caricature to the Darwin Centenary exhibition in 1909, it was stated to be by Pellegrini. However, there is evidence that it was in fact drawn by Tissot. A hand-coloured proof copy of the caricature reached Christ’s College Cambridge via a sale of Tissot’s drawings for Vanity Fair. It was also attributed to Tissot (under his pseudonym ‘Coïdé’) in The Windsor Magazine reprint of the Vanity Fair series (1905-7). 

At Down House there is a copy of the Vanity Fair caricature of Darwin paired in a single mount and frame with one of his enemy Richard Owen, also from Vanity Fair (‘Men of the Day’, no. 57, ‘Old Bones’, 1 March 1873) (EH88202629). A printed caption has been added: below Darwin we read, ‘You know we all sprang from Monkeys’, and below Owen ‘What a pity you didn’t spring a little further.’     

  • physical location Darwin archive, Cambridge University Library. Other copies exist. 

  • accession or collection number DAR 141.7-8 

  • copyright holder Syndics of Cambridge University Library 

  • originator of image Either Jacques Joseph Tissot, known in Britain as James Tissot, or Carlo Pellegrini: probably the former. 

  • date of creation September 1871 

  • computer-readable date c.1871-06-01 to 1871-09-29 

  • medium and material chromolithograph 

  • references and bibliography Vanity Fair, no. 152 (30 Sept. 1871), p. 107. Letter from John Murray to Darwin, 10 May 1871 (DCP-LETT-7750). Letter from Darwin to Murray, 12 May [1871] (DCP-LETT-7755). Francis Darwin (ed.), The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, 3 vols (London: John Murray, revised ed., 1888), vol. 1, pp. 111, 141-2. Darwin Centenary: The Portraits, Prints and Writings of Charles Robert Darwin, exhibited at Christ’s College, Cambridge, 1909 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1909), p. 28, no. 146. Alvin Sullivan (ed.), British Literary Magazines, vol. 3, The Victorian and Edwardian Age (Westport, Conn. and London: Greenwood Press, 1984), pp. 437-440. Janet Browne, Charles Darwin: The Power of Place. Volume II of a Biography (London: Jonathan Cape, 2002), pp. 376-7. Paul R. Spiring, The World of Vanity Fair (1868-1907) (London: MX Publishing, 2009); this is based on Bertram Fletcher Robinson’s Windsor Magazine (1905-7), an anthology of Vanity Fair caricatures, with that of Darwin fronting the section ‘Science and Medicine’ (pp. 186f. of Spiring’s reprint). Diana Donald and Jane Munro (eds), Endless Forms: Charles Darwin, Natural Science and the Visual Arts (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009), p. viii. J. van Wyhe, ‘Iconography’, p. 183. 


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