Darwin’s Eye for Life

This review appeared in the Times Literary Supplement on 17 July 2009

Endless Forms: Charles Darwin, Natural Science and the Visual Arts, The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Diana Donald and Jane Munro (eds), Endless Forms: Charles Darwin, Natural Science and the Visual Arts, 344pp., Yale University Press, £40 (US $75)

Like many aspects of his contradictory public persona, Darwin’s legendary philistinism was not as straightforward as it seemed. As his son Francis observed, the great man seemed to derive a certain satisfaction from portraying himself as “an ignoramus in all matters of art”, cheerfully dismissing contemporary high art as “affected nonsense and [a] waste of money and time.” When the critic John Ruskin invited him to view his private collection of Turners, Darwin confessed afterwards that “he could make out absolutely nothing of what Mr. Ruskin saw in them”; yet Ruskin’s disheartened response — he chided Darwin for seeing the world through the eyes of a vivisectionist — was equally myopic, for it overlooked the surprising richness of Darwin’s visual imagination, which, as this stunning exhibition sets out to show, was a crucial component of his unparalleled achievements as a naturalist and thinker.

Darwin had not always been resistant to the arts: in fact he made regular visits to the Fitzwilliam Museum during his time at Cambridge in the late 1820s, “and my taste must have been fairly good, for I certainly admired the best pictures, which I discussed with the old curator”, as he recalled in a later memoir. He began to collect old prints and reproductions of Italian Renaissance works, and even managed to wade through Sir Joshua Reynolds’s Discourses on Art; but it was his exposure to natural history illustrations that served to open young Darwin’s eyes to “the bright tints of nature” that were evident in the watercolours of Audubon and MacGillivray, outshining “the dingy high-art colours” that he encountered on the walls of the museum. The Cambridge botanist John Stevens Henslow, who was Darwin’s natural history tutor, was an accomplished and highly observant watercolourist, whose annotated teaching sheets, collaged from dozens of exquisitely drawn botanical studies, apparently made a powerful impression on his students. Two of these sheets are included in the exhibition (in an introductory section entitled “Darwin’s Eye”), alongside a range of other visual materials that helped direct the course of Darwin’s later research. Among them is an astonishingly dense and detailed lithograph of the Brazilian rainforest, which Darwin recalled when he arrived in Brazil on H.M.S. Beagle in 1832, writing to Henslow that “nothing but the reality can give any idea how wonderful, how magnificent the scene is. . . your engraving is exactly true, but underrates rather than exaggerates the luxuriance.” Such detailed visual recall was characteristic of Darwin’s observational cast of mind, an attribute that was reinforced by the long-standing traditions of natural theology that continued to dominate Victorian attitudes to nature. Labouring to uncover the intricacies of the natural realm was still regarded as an act of homage to the wisdom of the divine creator, and was not yet associated with the march of secular scientism for which Darwinism would later be held responsible. As Diana Donald (one of the exhibition’s co-curators) points out in her introduction to the accompanying catalogue, Darwin was keenly aware of the visual dimensions of the scientific enterprise, and “the foundation of his brilliance as a natural scientist was his ability to study nature with sustained attention and insight.”

By the time he returned from the Beagle voyage in the autumn of 1836, Darwin had amassed enough research materials to last him for the rest of his life. Considering his frequent bouts of ill-health, his work-rate was prodigious, and over the course of the following four decades he produced fourteen major published works, two of which — The Origin of Species (1859) and its sequel, The Descent of Man (1871) — utterly transformed mankind’s understanding of the natural world, as well as his own place within it. The social and religious impact of evolutionary theory can hardly be overstated; writing The Origin of Species was, as Darwin famously observed, “like confessing a murder”, and Victorian culture was both unnerved and energised by Darwin’s revelations. This inspired exhibition — the first of its kind — traces the impact of evolutionary thought on the work of nineteenth-century artists across Europe and America, from the stark Jurassic shoreline of William Dyce’s Pegwell Bay (1858) to the unsettling simian elegance of Degas’s Little Dancer Aged Fourteen (1881), via a host of more literal visual interpretations such as George Bouverie Goddard’s The Struggle for Existence (1879) and George Frederick Watts’s Evolution (1898-1904), the latter portraying a monolithic Earth Mother gazing off across a dark primeval landscape while her gang of feral offspring fight it out among themselves.

But it’s the photographs that really make the show. Henry Fox Talbot’s The Geologists, for example (an early salt print from c. 1843), poses a middle-class couple in their Victorian town clothes against a vast stratified rockface, the man pointing stiffly to an intrusion of fossil-laden limestone. Taken only a few years after Darwin’s return from the Beagle voyage, this haunting image seems a world away from the natural history illustrations that first inspired his travels. Darwin was much taken with this new visual technology, and one of his later (though less successful) publications, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872), was among the first scientific works to be illustrated with photographs, some of which were specially commissioned from the Swedish-born portrait photographer Oscar Rejlander. The selection of posed mug-shots of Rejlander “expressing surprise” and of Mrs Rejlander “sneering” are easily the funniest images in the exhibition, but they also serve to illustrate the difficulties that Darwin faced when it came to the visual representation of his ideas. His contention that our minds and emotions are as much products of evolution as our ape-like physiques was always going to be difficult to demonstrate, particularly as his argument was so dependent on his choice of supporting images. But, given the impossibility of photographing animal expressions (long exposure times required sitters to keep still), Darwin turned to the sentimental dog-painter Briton Riviere, who supplied a series of annotated drawings of dogs in various emotional states (“humble and affectionate”, “aggressive and snarling”, etc.), although, as Riviere pointed out in one of his many letters to Darwin, tail-wagging was impossible to convey effectively in a drawing.

The critics had a field day with The Expression of the Emotions, not only for its unquestioning anthropomorphism, but also for its exposure of Darwin’s middle-brow tastes, typified by his fondness for Sir Edwin Landseer’s soulful pooches, whose homesick expressions and upturned eyes were much admired by provincial Victorian gallery-goers. Darwin was aware of his aesthetic limitations, acknowledging in his Recollections of 1876 his own “curious and lamentable loss of the higher aesthetic tastes.” By then (he was in his late sixties), he found all forms of fine art tiresome, with the exception of popular novels, though “only if they do not end unhappily — against which a law ought to be passed.” So it’s hard to imagine what Darwin might have made of this wide-ranging exhibition, with its profusion of images by the likes of Ruskin and Félicien Rops, though he probably would have approved of the Landseers on show in “The Struggle for Existence” room, especially the pair of fighting stags who, antlers entwined, lie dying from exhaustion on a Scottish hillside. As Darwin observed in The Descent of Man, skeletons of stags were often found with their antlers locked together, “shewing how miserably the victor and vanquished had perished” in the struggle for sexual dominance. The fact that an animal’s sexual impulses could override its instinct for self-preservation was something that Darwin had already noted in connection with the mating rituals of birds, in which the males’ displays of movement and colour would increase the dangers of predation. The elaborate (and extremely noisy) courtship routine of the male Argus pheasant was a case in point, and Darwin’s rhapsodic account of the distinctive “ball-and-socket” markings on its large secondary wing feathers (“it was more like a work of art than of nature”) served to reinforce some of his more controversial ideas about the nature of sexual selection: firstly, that (with the notable exception of the human race) females were in charge of sexual choice, and secondly, that animals, especially birds, had evolved a taste for beauty. Once again, the critics rounded on Darwin’s anthropomorphic assumptions — it was noted that Darwin had managed to project himself into the mind of a peahen —, and, as Jane Munro (the exhibition’s other curator) points out in an excellent catalogue essay, Darwin appeared to base his assertion that birds “have nearly the same taste for the beautiful as we have” on the fact that people the world over, from Maori chiefs to Victorian hostesses, took pleasure in adorning themselves with “borrowed plumes.” To illustrate the point, a large and lustrous canvas by James Tissot — The Artists’ Wives (1885) — hangs opposite a looped video of a Malaysian Argus pheasant going through his noisy courtship routine: as the excited bird reaches a climax, his impressively raised feathers seem to mirror the plumage on the hat of Tissot’s central figure, an elegantly dressed Parisian woman who turns in her seat, as though to see where all the noise is coming from.

A witty pairing, and typical of the insight and imagination that has gone into curating “Endless Forms” (the title is taken from the famous last line of The Origin of Species: “from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”) And though this major exhibition has been put on as part of the 200th anniversary celebrations of Darwin’s birth, the result is far more than a commemorative exercise, for it succeeds in placing a familiar figure in an entirely new perspective, revealing the surprising extent to which Darwinian ideas, in changing the ways we understand the world, have changed our ways of seeing it.

Richard Hamblyn

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