The Expression of Emotions in Darwin

While dipping into my copy of Volume 5 (1851–1855) of The Correspondence of Charles Darwin yesterday, looking for a quote about Darwin's lawn experiment, I came across the following amusing snippet:

Charles Darwin to Joseph Dalton Hooker, 27th May, 1855

…You ask about my Photograph; I have been done at the Club; but if I really have as bad an expression, as my photograph gives me, how I can have one single friend is surprising. My Brother has a large drawing of me, by Lawrence, of which he has had some photographs made & no doubt, if anyone really wished, others could be made.—

Darwin c.1855
Charlie 'No Mates' Darwin c. 1855
by Maull and Polyblank
Darwin, 1853
Darwin in 1853
by Samuel Laurence

Hooker had evidently asked for a photograph of Darwin (the letter containing his request, as far as I can tell, does not survive), but Darwin didn't much like his recent photograph—one of a series of photographs for the Literary and Scientific Portrait Club by Maull and Polyblank, who had also photographed Hooker—preferring a slightly earlier portrait in chalk by Samuel Laurence (not Lawrence).
I can't say I blame him. The Maull and Polyblank photograph doesn't do Darwin any favours: his expression is uptight, bordering on stern. Look at those glowering eyes! There's a man who isn't used to having his photograph taken. It's the sort of photograph he might well have put on the mantelpiece to keep the kids away from the fire.

The Laurence portrait is far kinder to Darwin: although the trademark, ape-like brows are still there, the artist has captured a man deep in thought; a man who has worked out the meaning of life, but has told practically nobody about it yet. What on earth is going on inside that head?

Perhaps it isn't so surprising that a man so worried about what the world would one day think of him should have cared two hoots about how he looked in a photograph, but I find it amusing that Darwin, like so many other people then and now, should have thought he didn't photograph well.

Vanity, thy name was Darwin.

Richard Carter, FCD

Writer and photographer Richard Carter, FCD is the founder of the Friends of Charles Darwin. He lives in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire.WebsiteNewsletterMastodonetc…

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *