Unique artwork: Darwin on the Beagle, painted during the voyage

November 28, 2015 • 11:45 am

The Torygraph has published a jocular painting and the story behind it: it’s apparently the only depiction of the young Charles Darwin on his five-year H. M. S. Beagle voyage beginning in 1831. It was created by the official Beagle artist.

Hannah Furness, the art correspondent, gives the tale. But first, the painting and its title:

The watercolour, entitled “Quarter Deck of a Man of War on Diskivery [sic] of interesting Scenes on an Interesting Voyage”, is now known to be by Augustus Earle, the Beagle’s first official shipboard artist tasked with recording the botany, fossils and other specimens en route.

Darwin-m_3508145b
Charles Darwin on board the Beagle, painted off the coast of Argentina on 24th September, 1832 Photo: Sotheby’s

You won’t be able to read everything that’s going on, so I’ll put an enlargement below of Uncle Chuck and transcription of the words spoken.  First some backstory:

The picture, which experts confirm depicts Darwin himself, reveals how the  squabbled over the fossils and botanic specimens beloved by the scientist, with one irate officer complaining the “cursed” items were clogging up the deck.

The watercolour, a cartoon painting by the ship’s official artist, is the first pictorial evidence of the sometimes fractious relationships on board, with Darwin’s daughter previously recalling Wickham had been known to threaten to throw specimens overboard.

. . . The cartoon is believed to have been painted as a joke to entertain the Beagle shipmates, and was never published in the official records of the expedition.

It disappeared from public view straight away, possibly via the ship’s captain Robert FitzRoy, and has been held in private art collections as a 19th century art curiosity until this year.

Darwin is the one in the top hat and tails, here enlarged (but without the balloon). The identification of the people and and words they spoke are in the long caption below; I’ve bolded the bit about Darwin:

Image shows: Charles Darwin on board the Beagle, painted off the coast of Argentina on 24th September, 1832. The work is to be sold at auction by Sotheby's with an estimate of £50,000 - £70,000. Figures from left to right: 1) sailor with rifle, a ‘Cabbage box’ on his back, and his ‘bag’ in): ‘I’ve kill’d a foine speciment of a flying monkey, shot three speciments of Geese, and was very near being yaffled by a d[am]d big bear!’; 2) a midshipman taking a bearing with a sextant; ‘I’ve shipped the long telescope; already now Sir!!’ 3) man in cap delivering sacks of geological specimens (one with labeled strata) to FitzRoy: ‘Stand out of MY way!!! I’ve got specimens for the Captain!!!’; 4) officer using a prismatic surveying compass, reading out a stream of figures and making notes or drawing; 5) officer complaining ‘there is no such thing as walking the deck for all these cursed specimens’; probably 1st Lieutenant John Clements Wickham, who is recorded as making similar comments in regards to Darwin’s collecting forays; 6) post-captain Robert FitzRoy, with his back turned discussing geological specimens; 7) warrant officer (probably the ship’s surgeon, Benjamin Bynoe), holding a cabbage, head bowed examining a specimen upon which Darwin is expatiating: ‘I will consult my book when I go down’; 8) Charles Darwin, in a frock coat and top hat, talking at length about an insect specimen in his hand: ‘Observe its legs are long, and the palpi are strongly toothed on the inner side. I think the whole insect appears of a dark chestnut brown colour with a yellowish cast on the abdomen. Its history is but little known but there can be no doubt of its being of a predacious nature. What do you think Mr –?’ (Bynoe, as a warrant officer, would be addressed as Mr); 9) sailor, doffing hat and carrying a cabbage palm ‘Mr E — Sir ask’d me to bring you this speciment’ (‘Mr E–’ might well be Augustus Earle, the only person aboard who would have been addressed thus); 10) sailor with tripod, hammer, and flask of rum carrying a case labelled ‘200 guinea Theod[olite]’:  ‘The Expedition to Egypt was a fool to this!’ (an ironic reference to Nelson’s Battle of the Nile, and the subsequent Expedition to Egypt; the Beagle had engaged briefly in a military foray in Montevideo to suppress a mutiny, firing one of the ship’s cannons and marching into the town; Darwin took part in great excitement, and the episode was over in 30 minutes, without casualties on either side); 11) sailor with shells in his hat: ‘The least I can get for these ones is a tot’.
Figures from left to right [in top painting]:
1) sailor with rifle, a ‘Cabbage box’ on his back, and his ‘bag’ in): ‘I’ve kill’d a foine speciment of a flying monkey, shot three speciments of Geese, and was very near being yaffled by a d[am]d big bear!’;
2) a midshipman taking a bearing with a sextant; ‘I’ve shipped the long telescope; already now Sir!!’
3) man in cap delivering sacks of geological specimens (one with labeled strata) to FitzRoy: ‘Stand out of MY way!!! I’ve got specimens for the Captain!!!’;
4) officer using a prismatic surveying compass, reading out a stream of figures and making notes or drawing;
5) officer complaining ‘there is no such thing as walking the deck for all these cursed specimens’; probably 1st Lieutenant John Clements Wickham, who is recorded as making similar comments in regards to Darwin’s collecting forays;
6) post-captain Robert FitzRoy, with his back turned discussing geological specimens;
7) warrant officer (probably the ship’s surgeon, Benjamin Bynoe), holding a cabbage, head bowed examining a specimen upon which Darwin is expatiating: ‘I will consult my book when I go down’;
8) Charles Darwin, in a frock coat and top hat, talking at length about an insect specimen in his hand: ‘”Observe its legs are long, and the palpi are strongly toothed on the inner side. I think the whole insect appears of a dark chestnut brown colour with a yellowish cast on the abdomen. Its history is but little known but there can be no doubt of its being of a predacious nature. What do you think Mr –?”’ (Bynoe, as a warrant officer, would be addressed as Mr);
9) sailor, doffing hat and carrying a cabbage palm ‘Mr E — Sir ask’d me to bring you this speciment’ (‘Mr E–’ might well be Augustus Earle, the only person aboard who would have been addressed thus);
10) sailor with tripod, hammer, and flask of rum carrying a case labelled ‘200 guinea Theod[olite]’: ‘The Expedition to Egypt was a fool to this!’ (an ironic reference to Nelson’s Battle of the Nile, and the subsequent Expedition to Egypt; the Beagle had engaged briefly in a military foray in Montevideo to suppress a mutiny, firing one of the ship’s cannons and marching into the town; Darwin took part in great excitement, and the episode was over in 30 minutes, without casualties on either side);
11) sailor with shells in his hat: ‘The least I can get for these ones is a tot’.

The estimate from Sotheby’s is between 50,000 and 70,000 pounds, but I bet it goes for more. I wonder if Richard Dawkins will bid. A bit more information:

This [picture] is now known to have been painted off the coast of Argentina on September 24, 1832, when the fossils depicted are known to have been brought onto the ship.

Dialogue painting in by the artist shows one member of the crew recounting his exciting adventures with local flora and fauna, claiming he had shot a “flying monkey” and been nearly “yaffled” by a bear.

Another rushes to show specimens to the captain, while a third slopes off with a bottle of rum.

One man, believed to be 1st Lieutenant John Clements Wickham, says: “There is no such thing as walking the deck for all these cursed specimens,”

Biographies of Darwin published previously refer to Henrietta Darwin, his daughter, recalling tales of how Wickham would mutter: “If I had my way, all your d–d mess would be chucked overboard, & you after it old Flycatcher.”

 

h/t: RJC

18 thoughts on “Unique artwork: Darwin on the Beagle, painted during the voyage

    1. You’d have been able to commiserate together. Darwin suffered badly from seasickness too. It’s one of the reasons that he took so many long trips ashore.

  1. This is amazing. It seems so impractical to be dressed in layers of clothes in the tropics, but that is what ‘was done’ back then.

    1. A large part of the the voyage was doing hydrographical survey work along the Argentine – Uruguay – Islas Malvinas (“Falklands Islands” to some, including present day colonists), before going through the Magellan Straits and repeating the same performance up the Chilean coast.
      While not exactly “arctic”, the area is hardly tropical either. In the most recent Falklands War (I hesitate to use the phrase “last war”), more than a few troops on either side lost toes to trench foot or died of hypothermia.

      1. Having been born and raised in Uruguay I can attest to the bitter cold of winters. Some of the time spent by Darwin in the Rio de la Plata was during winter.

        1. Darwin’s family grew up around Shrewsbury, which has some “frost pockets” famous for some of the lowest temperatures ever recorded in England – and some of the lowest for Britain, including the heights of the Scottish mountains.

  2. Excellent stuff, onboard life and as pointed out he was the first artist as he was not the only artist to sail on the Beagle

    “In 1833, at Montevideo, Conrad Martens (1801-1878), replaced Augustus Earle as artist on board the Beagle. His tenure was short; he left the ship at Valparaiso in October 1834, but not without producing some striking images such as the Beagle in the channels of Tierra del Fuego”
    University of Otago NZ

    You can find examples of Martens work and more here, an interesting link from the same:
    http://www.otago.ac.nz/library/exhibitions/darwin/cabinet1.html

  3. A lovely piece of artwork, and I really like the comedic nature and busyness. Perhaps there is a reproduction at a reasonable price out there.
    I’ve never heard of being “yaffled” by a bear, so I googled it:

    English slang from the Westcountry where it means to eat noisily, greedily and rapidly without paying any attention to table manners, the quality of the food or the effect on other diners. The process is usually interspersed with grunts, belches and slobbering and would put a starving hyena to shame.

  4. What wonderful draftsmen those naval ships’ artists were – necessary as they played the role of official photographers. The drawing (with lengthy speech bubbles) is very much in the style of a cartoon by Gillray, the late c18 political cartoonist who satirised everybody from the Prince of Wales down. Augustus Earle spent some time in Australia and produced a number of famous paintings of early settlement, some of which are in the National Gallery here in Canberra. A great find; hope it goes into a public collection.

  5. According to the British Museum, “Crossing the Line” by the same artist, Augustus Earle, which appeared in the published version of the voyage of the Beagle, depicts Darwin. I’m not sure which figure in “Crossing the Line” is supposed to be Darwin.

  6. The painting clearly depicts a capstan. Earle, after the best part of a year on a small ship, knew that there wasn’t a capstan on the ship. Stylistically the painting looks nothing like Earle’s other works. Given that Darwin’s account of the voyage was widely read and this painting has no provenance then the most likely explanation is that the painting was based on a reading of Darwin’s account. The depiction of the ship just doesn’t look anything remotely similar to the Beagle or Earle’s other works.

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