At last! Every every known photograph of Darwin on one wonderful site

February 12, 2023 • 9:15 am

John van Wyhe is a historian of science at the University of Singapore, specializing in Darwin and Wallace. Beside his many books he’s known for creating the ultimate Darwin source: Darwin Online, with all of CD’s manuscripts, publications, biographical data—everything but his correspondence, which you can find at Cambridge’s Darwin Correspondence Project. van Wyhe is also known for research that dispelled two persistent myths about Darwin: that he delayed publishing On the Origin of Species because of his fear of public reaction, and that he delayed telling people about A. R. Wallace’s 1858 letter detailing Wallace’s independent discovery of evolution via natural selection—supposedly because Darwin wanted to withhold credit from Wallace (van Wyhe debunked this by tracing the mailboats on which the letter would have traveled.) Both of those claims are bunk but are still repeated, especially by creationists and Darwin-bashers.

van Wyhe’s own bio is online at the site; and about two days ago, just in time for Darwin Day, he announced the creation of a page that brings together in one place every known photograph of Darwin (there aren’t many, but there are some I hadn’t seen). Here’s van Wyhe’s announcement on FB:

If you click on the headline below, you’ll go to the page, and take a few minutes to peruse the Great Man’s visage on his birthday.  John’s site is a goldmine for teachers preparing lectures on Darwin and evolution, an the captions of the photos (which I’ve truncated) and all the variants show meticulous scholarship.

I’ll put up a few photos from the page in chronological order; indented captions are by van Wyhe. A few bits from the introductory section:

This is by far the most complete and accurate catalogue of photographs of Darwin ever published. It includes a dozen discovered during the many years of research for this study. The list includes more details about each photograph than previously published, such as dates, prices, the photographers and comments by Darwin or others on how the photographs were originally received. And, unprecedentedly, it includes details of all known variants produced to the early 20th century—more than 300. This is how Darwin’s appearance become so well known to the public during the 19th century and after.

It is well known that Darwin declined a request to be photographed with A.R. Wallace to illustrate a German translation of the 1858 Linnean papers (F365). (A.B. Meyer to Darwin 24 Nov. 1869 CCD17:497.) Darwin replied that Meyer was welcome to include a photograph “But I am not willing to sit on purpose; it is what I hate doing & wastes a whole day owing to my weak health; and to sit with another person would cause still more trouble & delay …

Despite Darwin’s oft-expressed aversion to sitting for photographs, this catalogue reveals that from 1865 he would be photographed every year or alternate year for the remainder of his life except for perhaps 1875-77. It was common practice at the time to sit for a more up-to-date photograph to send to friends and correspondents. In comparison, Emma Darwin was photographed much less. A list of all known photographs and portraits of her are listed in a separate iconography in Darwin: A Companion, 2021.

. . . His personal appearance was also very consistent after the 1860s with a mostly bald head and full, bushy white beard. A 30 May 1935 letter from his son Leonard Darwin in the Robert M. Stecher Collection at Case Western Reserve University accompanying an autographed copy of Rejlander 1871d.1 states: “I think [the photo] was taken somewhere about 1870; but this is a mere guess. He always looked old for his age. It might be rather later.” Louisa A’hmuty Nash, a neighbour (1873-9) and friend of the Darwins at Down, recalled: “Those eyebrows used to trouble his wife when his photograph was taken: she used to say the photographers gave him no eyes at all.” (A223) Some of the dates adopted here might be further revised in future. And there are probably further exposures from sittings already known.

The photos (captions excerpted from site:

1842 Aug. 23 Seated half-length three-quarter right profile daguerreotype with first child William Erasmus on his lap by Antoine-François-Jean Claudet (1797-1867), 18 King William Street, Strand and Coliseum, called The Royal Adelaide Gallery. Only known daguerreotype of Darwin and the only ‘photographic’ image of him with another person.

It’s curious that this is the only photograph of Darwin with anybody else; there are no “family photos” besides this, nor any photos of Darwin with his wife Emma.

1855 Seated half-length, full face in embroidered waistcoat, by Maull & Polyblank for the Literary and Scientific Portrait Club. The Club was “instituted for the purpose of attaining a uniform set of portraits of the literary and scientific men of the present age at a moderate cost.”


[Same photo] Photogravure (slightly cropped on all sides) image considerably ‘cleaned up’ and edited, looking very fine.

1857 Almost full-length seated left profile, checked trousers, waistcoat and cravat, by Maull & Polyblank whose partnership was 1854-65.

Maull & Polyblank 1857. (Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia)

1864 Three photographs by William Erasmus Darwin. The first photographs with beard.

Three-quarter left profile.

He’d aged considerably in seven years; this was around the time The Origin was published.

1865 Nov. Three photographs by Ernest Edwards. Taken in London. There was presumably a fourth. The first photograph was extremely widely reproduced. Darwin paid £1 for “E. Edwards Photo” on 2 Mar. 1866.

c.1866 Darwin on his cob Tommy in front of Down House, by Leonard Darwin. Sometimes dated to 1866 (when Tommy was acquired) or 1867 and very often to 1868, based on the annotation on the verso of the copy in CUL.

I hadn’t seen this photo of Darwin on a horse!

1866 Apr. 24 [One of] Four photographs by Ernest Edwards. Taken in London. Darwin paid Edwards £3 8s. 6d. on 5 Sept. 1866. Classed account book, Down House. Janet Browne, Power of place, 2002, p. 363, noted that during 1866 Darwin “paid out a total of £14 in small sums for photographs, nearly doubling his overall costs for “Science” that year”.

1868 Jul.-Aug. Four photographs by Julia Margaret Cameron; taken at Freshwater, Isle of Wight in two sittings.

1871a-b Two photographs by Oscar Gustav Rejlander. 1 Albert Mansions, Victoria Street, London. These two have almost never been reproduced.

1878a Three-quarter right profile, seated in a Down House chair (according to some sources), by Leonard Darwin. W.E. Darwin wrote in 1909 that the photograph was taken in Basset, Southampton, which is where he, W.E. Darwin, lived. Darwin stayed there from Apr. 27-May 13 1878.

1878b Full-length left profile, seated in a basket chair on the verandah at Down House by Leonard Darwin.

c.1880 Two photographs by Elliott & Fry. Some modern works claim 1879, 1880 or 1881 or that these are the last photographs of Darwin. No contemporary datings have been found.

1881 Four photographs by Elliott & Fry. This well-known sitting includes the only known photographs of Darwin standing. The BMNH exhibition of 1909 included all four photographs, dating them 1882. Sometimes dated by modern writers to 1880.

1881 (one of the above). One of the two images published as a cabinet card of Emma Darwin by Barraud, possibly done on the same day, is dated 1881

I believe the four above are the last photos of Darwin taken when he was alive; he died at home in Downe on April 19, 1882. He was only 73, but, as you see, looked much older. Hard work and an unknown ailment that plagued him much of his life had taken its toll. Wikipedia’s account of his death:

In 1882 he was diagnosed with what was called “angina pectoris” which then meant coronary thrombosis and disease of the heart. At the time of his death, the physicians diagnosed “anginal attacks”, and “heart-failure”; there has since been scholarly speculation about his life-long health issues.

He died at Down House on 19 April 1882. His last words were to his family, telling Emma “I am not the least afraid of death—Remember what a good wife you have been to me—Tell all my children to remember how good they have been to me”. While she rested, he repeatedly told Henrietta and Francis “It’s almost worth while to be sick to be nursed by you”.

He had expected to be buried in St Mary’s churchyard at Downe, but at the request of Darwin’s colleagues, after public and parliamentary petitioning, William Spottiswoode (President of the Royal Society) arranged for Darwin to be honoured by burial in Westminster Abbey, close to John Herschel and Isaac Newton. The funeral, held on Wednesday 26 April, was attended by thousands of people, including family, friends, scientists, philosophers and dignitaries.

A tweet from Adam Rutherford showing Darwin’s memorial stone in Westminster Abbey; he’s buried beneath it. It’s easy to miss, so if you go looking for the stone, look carefully:

From van Wyhe’s site: Darwin’s beloved wife Emma:

1881. One of the two images published as a cabinet card of Emma Darwin by Barraud, possibly done on the same day, is dated 1881.

[Addendum by Greg Mayer: Jerry alerted me to this valuable addition to Darwin Online yesterday, and I had a chance to look though it then. It is wonderful– in the original meaning of being full of wonders! It has the incredibly precise attention to detail and context that characterizes all of John’s work, but also reveals, even in a catalog of photos, his grasp of the big picture of why Darwin is worth studying and how we can still learn so much about him.

The news of the site came at an opportune time. I had been attempting to track down the date of a photo that I show to students in my evolution class, and Google image search wasn’t working properly. But with The Complete Photographs of Darwin, I quickly determined that it’s 1878a, taken by Leonard Darwin!

Once again Darwin scholarship in particular, and evolutionary biology and the history of science in general, are in debt to John van Wyhe. Darwin Online is now more indispensable than ever.

(Jerry mentioned two of John’s more notable contributions, concerning Darwin’s “delay” and the receipt of Wallace’s initial manuscript on natural selection. Here are his original papers on those two topics– both well worth reading.

van Wyhe, J. 2007. Mind the gap: did Darwin avoid publishing his theory for many years? Notes and Records of the Royal Society 61:177-205. full text

van Wyhe, J., and K. Rookmaker. 2012. A new theory to explain the receipt of Wallace’s Ternate Essay by Darwin in 1858. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society 106:249-252. pdf )]

19 thoughts on “At last! Every every known photograph of Darwin on one wonderful site

    1. I would add, in honor of Darwin, that the earthworm link gives a very good account of Darwin’s work on earthworms and of the interest of his earthworm book.

  1. This website frequently defends science, and Darwin and the earthworms reminds us of the importance of patient repeated observations and also of the importance of instrument design. We should think of Darwin, not sitting in a chair, but on his hands and knees with his earthworm stone.

    1. … Or fossil-hunting in Snowdonia (or Argentina). Or measuring tsunami deposits around Valparaiso. Or geologising and biologising from one side of (a) Galapagos island to the other
      He was very much a field scientist in his youth, and by professional affiliation considered himself to be a geologist, if an anything-ist. He was Hon.Secretary to the Geology Society for several years, before he moved out of London to rural Kent.

  2. Fantastic! Several I haven’t seen before, including the one on a horse. Probably the most consequential scientist of all time.

  3. I must take you to a small church, St Chad’s Montford, just off the Oswestry road out of Shrewsbury (the modern A5) where Darwin’s parents, Robert and Susannah (who was the daughter of Josiah Wedgewood) are buried in the churchyard.

  4. Given the mental picture that comes to my mind when someone says Charles Darwin, I paused when I saw the photo of Darwin on the horse. In that moment I thought, “Huh, he knew how to ride a horse? That’s kind of out of the ordinary.”

    But in the next second, “I thought wait of course he did, everyone rode horses then.”

    I mention this because it reminded me to recognize again that the past is different than today. I think I’ll use this example to remind friends that they should not blindly judge the people of the past by the values of today. The past was different.

    BTW, I think younger Darwin’s sideburns also illustrates that point… did people back then really think that style was da bomb? 😉

  5. What about the one with him holding his finger to his lips, as if about to tell a secret? I believe a colorized version was shared here a few years ago but I don’t know the story behind it and I don’t remember the artist who did the color work. I would love to have a quality print of it.

    And I would like to thank whoever it was on here a while back that recommended “This Thing of Darkness”, by Harry Thompson. A wonderful Darwin-related novel!

    1. I might have been the person who recommended This Thing of Darkness (I created the – not very good – Wikipedia article about it). But I wouldn’t recommend it to our host, as I suspect it takes too many liberties with its portrayal of Darwin.

      1. I enjoy a bit of historical fiction like that of Bernard Cornwell. Thompson’s is quite good, but it’s not for everyone. Artistic license is inevitable but then I guess it’s like the photo I asked about. But a sincere thanks for the recommendation. I should probably read more period naval fiction, I find it very stirrings while knowing I could never have survived such a thing in real life.

    2. The “finger” picture is a photoshop job. It’s Darwin’s head, someone else’s hand, and who knows what else they changed. You should be able to identify the source of Darwin’s head by searching through JvW’s compilation.


      1. Ah, thanks for the clarification. Figures. The photo is too good to be true, since it seemed to show an impish side to him.

  6. He had expected to be buried in St Mary’s churchyard at Downe, but at the request of Darwin’s colleagues, after public and parliamentary petitioning, William Spottiswoode (President of the Royal Society) arranged for Darwin to be honoured by burial in Westminster Abbey

    Charles Dickens had expressed a strong wish to be buried in the moat of Rochester Castle “in an inexpensive, unostentatious, and strictly private manner”, but this was overridden after his death. (Probably by people using the occasion to promote themselves.) Wikipedia names Rochester Cathedral as Dickens’ preferred resting place, but I’m pretty sure my mother, a former Honorary General Secretary of the Dickens Fellowship, says the castle moat and her knowledge of (the other) CD isn’t something to be contradicted lightly! I’ll double-check with her when she visits tomorrow.

  7. (This is substantiated by a letter I read at Down House around 1991):A local merchant in Down heard that another workman (maybe clockmaker) who he had employed for many years had attended the Darwin memorial service in Westminster Abbey and wrote him a letter deploring his commemoration of a “heretic” and severing their commercial relationship forever. Sadly this letter was later removed after the British, belatedly, recognized the importance of Down House and its contents; it resides in London or Cambridge or somewhere else now. The renovators removed all the memorabilia and documents that had been visible in a rear room of the house and added a recording of David Attenborough as well as a tea room. Keep in mind that Darwin died in 1883 and it took the British government wellover a CENTURY to protect the house where Darwin spent his entire adult life. It had been occupied by various groups and maybe a school of some kind during that entire time. In 1991 when we visited we and one Japanese photographer were the only visitors and the house was being run by an American scientist. No tearoom yet. But lots of interesting important documents! Now stored somewhere where no one can see them.

    1. Pretty much all the Darwin archive has been put online, thanks to John van Wyhe & others. Items were stolen at an uncertain time, including one of Darwin’s notebooks (still missing). I mentioned it here before when the other notebook was anonymously returned. Indeed, I have it on good authority that even in recent years visitors have stolen plants from the greenhouse. Like at school, one person gets the whole class detention…

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