On a portrait of Charles Darwin

Down House

Some extraordinary things are coming together in the Wellington Arch in London. English Heritage is getting ready to open a new exhibition in the Quadriga Gallery (The Birth of Archaeology and the Battle for the Past), which opens next week – the first public event in a year of celebration of the Ancient Monuments Consolidation & Amendment Act 1913 (really!). They should’ve given the act a snappier name:  it is in fact a great story.

Anyway, among the stuff being unpacked and examined in the arch when I was there on Wednesday, were three portraits: an oil of John Lubbock, an oil of General Pitt-Rivers, and a photo of Charles Darwin.

The latter (above, ready to hang), is from Darwin’s home at Down House, managed by English Heritage. Online it’s sometimes described as 1859 (the year his On the Origin of Species was published), which would be great – we also have a first edition copy of the book in the show, and the flint handaxe that John Evans and Joseph Prestwich took back to London from the quarry at St Acheul, also in 1859 (another story, but the find that amongst other things, showed archaeology could write history). But when was the photo really taken?

On the face of it, that date comes from an odd book by Karl Pearson (1914) about Francis Galton (it has an unsettling obsession with genealogy). He reproduces the image as below:

Pearson 1914Pearson says Darwin (February 12 1809–1882) is aged 51, which would mean the photo was taken between February 12 1860 and February 11 1861. Which is nearly there, but not quite.

(Interestingly, Pearson also notes that the photo was “touched up by Mrs Darwin”. Comparison of images here suggests she was particularly concerned with his trousers.)

When the Down House print was unpacked in the arch, I was able to look at the back of the frame. There are two stickers, including a business label from Messrs Maull & Fox, at 187a Piccadilly.

Down House back

I learnt about Henry Maull (1829–1914) from a useful website about London photographers. Maull traded from a number of addresses, typically three at any one time, and with a number of different partners. One of those addresses was 187a Piccadilly, Westminster (above Hatchards booksellers), where he had premises between 1857 and 1885, and the business continued there under Maull’s name until 1924. His name appeared above the shop in four guises:

1. Maull & Polyblank: partnership  with George Henry Polyblank (1828–?), May 1857–March 1865.

2. Henry Maull: after this partnership was dissolved, Maull re-established himself on his own, March 1865–1871.

3. Henry Maull & Co: 1872–1877.

4. Maull & Fox: a new partnership with John Fox (1832–1907), 1878–1885; the partnership was dissolved in 1885, but the studio continued until 1924 under successive owners with the original name.

So this print must have been made, or at the very least framed and sold, some time between 1878 and 1924. Apparently after it was sold, on two occasions notes were added which suggested the photo was taken in 1859: one says “original taken about 1859”, the other, in a different hand, “…taken about the time of the publication of the ‘Origin’. Belonged to William & later to Horace Darwin. J.D.”

Maull’s first studio opened on Gracechurch Street, City of London, in 1854 (as Maull & Polyblank), so on that basis, the photo could theoretically have been taken between 1854 and 1862, when Darwin grew his beard. So far so good.

However, the photo was reproduced by Francis Darwin, Charles’s son, in 1899, when he described it thus:

“The portrait of Charles Darwin is by Messrs Maull and Fox, who have been good enough to permit its reproduction. The date of the photograph is probably 1854; it is, however, impossible to be certain on this point, the books of Messrs. Maull and Fox having been destroyed by fire. The reproduction is by Mr Dew-Smith, who has been at some disadvantage, having only an old and faded print to work from.”

The photo (cropped, perhaps reflecting the print’s condition – no trousers) was also reproduced by Darwin & Seward in 1903, again with the date “c 1854”. This image is on the Darwin online website:

Darwin & Seward 1903

A version was published in in 1884 in Harper’s Magazine (also from Darwin online):

Harper's Magazine 1884

In 1899, Maull was trading as Maull & Fox, and would have provided the print that Francis Darwin used under that name. But if the shot was taken in 1854, it would have been by Maull & Polyblank. That is the attribution to a very similar portrait. It looks like the same jacket, but otherwise different clothes, so apparently not actually at the same sitting, though one has to wonder:

Christ's College

This is now owned by Christ’s College, and was taken by Maull & Polyblank for the Literary & Scientific Portrait Club. The Darwin online website quotes a letter from Darwin to Joseph Dalton Hooker on 27 May 1855 that apparently refers to this image:

“if I really have as bad an expression, as my photograph gives me, how I can have one single friend is surprising.’

The website says there is a pencilled note on the back of the frame:

“This photograph of Darwin was presented by him to my Uncle, FD Dyster, of Tenby. I am informed by Francis Darwin, his son, that the photograph was probably taken in the year 1854, but he had never seen it. FHH Guillemard.”

So Francis said both of these photos were “about 1854”.

It seems likely that if these two really were taken in 1859, that date would have been associated with at least one of them from the start. Yet it was added later, and not to both. It’s a bit circumstantial, but the testimony of Francis and the sitter’s comment that is apparently about one of them, add up to the photos having been taken in 1854 or 1855. The Down House print was made in or after 1878.


Pearson, K 1914. The Life, Letters & Labours of Francis Galton


3 thoughts on “On a portrait of Charles Darwin

  1. I know the second photo of Darwin cannot date later than 1855 because I have an 1855 sketch made by my great great grandmother Harriet Lubbock of that image.

  2. Thanks Lyulph, that fits perfectly! Did she write anything on the sketch (other presumably than the date)??

  3. Only the date. However, 90% of the sketch book seems to be drawings from 1853-1855, so it seems reasonable that this inscribed date is genuine. Also, a copy of that photo was in possession of our family.
    I can send a scan if you want if you send me a mailbox that won’t reject it. That would allow you to see, within the limits of Harriet’s artistic talent, that the two images are the same.

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