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Darwin Correspondence Project

Jane Gray


Jane Loring Gray
Jane Loring Gray , 1886
Courtesy of the Gray Herbarium

Jane Loring Gray, the daughter of a Boston lawyer, married the Harvard botanist Asa Gray in 1848 and evidence suggests that she took an active interest in the scientific pursuits of her husband and his friends.

Just as Emma Darwin helped Charles with his correspondence, Jane Gray often acted as a secretary for her husband, but she also exchanged letters in her own name with botanists such as George Bentham and Francis Boott.  In one letter Bentham reported to her on the  current botanical work of Wallich and De Candolle, and clearly expected her to be interested in the news that De Candolle  was giving lectures in botany to an audience of  ‘about 40 ladies and a few gentlemen’ (letter to Jane Gray from George Bentham, 10 March 1852. Archives of the Gray Herbarium, Box AD, folder 1). After Asa Gray’s death, Jane published a selection of his letters.

Although she is only known to have corresponded directly with Darwin once, sending him observations about the behaviour of her dog (letter from J. L. Gray, 14 February 1870), she also passed on information through her husband, and is one of few women cited in Darwin’s Expression of Emotions.

Contribution to Expression

In the acknowledgments to Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872) Darwin thanked ‘Professor and Mrs. Asa Gray’ for attending to ‘some points in the expressions of the natives, as observed by them whilst ascending the Nile’.  In fact the observations were those of Jane alone.  The Grays were in Egypt on a European tour that had included an earlier visit to the Darwins at Down (for her detailed description of that visit, see Visiting the Darwins). Jane had taken away with her a copy of Darwin’s ‘Expression’ questionnaire, and was clearly aware of Darwin’s current research preoccupations. In their letter to Darwin from Egypt, Jane Gray wrote:

I enclose the few notes I made for you on the Nile— I am afraid you will think us very stupid people not to have done more. But it is surprising when one’s attention is drawn to it, how little we see what makes the different expressions in faces—

Darwin’s interest in expression had taken such strong possession of her that she even viewed works of art with this in mind:

I thought you would have been interested in seeing an old picture here of Fra Angelicos of the deposition from the cross— The Madonna has the distress muscles very carefully painted. The other women only the up & down wrinkles—

(letter from Asa Gray and J. L. Gray, 8 and 9 May 1869)

Darwin cited Gray’s observations on “grief folds” in Expression without naming her directly:

The expression, in its fully developed condition, is, as far as I can discover, not often represented in pictures by the old masters, no doubt owing to the same cause; but a lady who is perfectly familiar with this expression, informs me that in Fra Angelico’s ‘Descent from the Cross,’ in Florence, it is clearly exhibited in one of the figures on the right-hand; and I could add a few other instances.

(Expression, p. 185)

With respect to negroes, the lady who told me of Fra Angelico’s picture, saw a negro towing a boat on the Nile, and as he encountered an obstruction, she observed his grief-muscles in strong action, with the middle of the forehead well wrinkled.

(Expression, p. 187)

Friendship with the Darwins

During the course of their year long trip to Europe and North Africa in 1868 to 1869, the Grays visited Charles and Emma Darwin twice, spending several days as guests at Down House in October 1868, and visiting again on their return journey in August 1869. Although they never met again, the two couples became close friends.  The Darwins apparently introduced the Grays to the game of backgammon which features in later letters between the two men:

Pray give our very kind remembrances to Mrs. Gray. I know that she likes to hear men boasting,—it refreshes them so much. Now the tally with my wife in backgammon stands thus: she, poor creature, has won only 2490 games, whilst I have won, hurrah, hurrah, 2795 games.

(letter to Asa Gray, 28 January 1876)

And an entry in Jane Gray’s account book shows that they spent 14s on a backgammon board on 9 November 1868, a few days after leaving Down.

Two of the Darwins’ sons, George and Francis, saw the Grays when they toured the United States in 1871, and Emma Darwin wrote to Jane thanking her for her hospitality to the boys and for the gift of pincushions sent back with them (letter from Emma Darwin to Jane Gray, 28 October 1871. Archives of the Gray Herbarium, Box AD, folder 1).

In this section:

See also

Jane Gray’s detailed description of her visit to Down House: Visiting the Darwins

For more on Jane Gray’s life, see the web pages of the Gray Herbarium at Harvard

Jane Gray’s surviving correspondence, is in the Gray Herbarium of Harvard University