Worm casts as objets d'art

Charles Darwin and Victorian Visual Culture
October 6, 2006

The first edition of Charles Darwin's most famous work, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection , contained just a single illustration: a rather spartan line-drawn diagram of a schematic evolutionary tree. Yet in Charles Darwin and Victorian Visual Culture , Jonathan Smith takes the reader from this unpromising starting point on a rewarding journey through Darwin's less well-known but richly illustrated works.

What emerges is a side of Darwin that has received little attention: a man keenly aware of the artistic conventions of the day who was happy to use them if appropriate, prepared to manipulate them where it suited and not afraid to depart from them altogether where it did not.

Smith begins his journey into the visual world of the Victorians with Darwin's massive book on barnacles, A Monograph of the Sub-class Cirripedia , published in 1851 and 1854. He embeds this rather esoteric study in the craze for the seaside that swept through Britain in the mid-19th century. As the expanding railway network carried more people to the coast, so the appetite increased for books on seaside natural history.

At almost 1,100 pages, Darwin's Monograph was clearly not aimed at this audience, but Smith reveals how it was digested and relayed by popular writers.

Darwin's barnacle research was part of his big project to make a watertight case for evolution by natural selection. It would have been fairly easy for Darwin to arrange his illustrations to allude to his private vision that hermaphrodite barnacles were the ancestors of barnacle species with distinct male and female forms. But he did not. Through careful choreography of his barnacle images, Darwin held off questioning the widespread belief that variation in the natural world was all part of some divine master plan.

Darwin's evolutionary views are more easily detected in the illustrations that were published after On the Origin of Species . His botanical works drew heavily on botanical conventions, but Smith shows how "he was free to mix and match, pick and choose, and even to innovate as his needs demanded".

In Darwin's book on orchids, for example, only a few of the main illustrations showed the entire flower, as was common in most other plant books. In the main, Darwin stripped away the petals and sepals to expose the sexual organs - the focus of his central argument that orchids were the result of "the evolutionary dance between flowers and insects". Darwin's keenness to see Orchids published with illustrations "done exceptionally well" shows just how much he appreciated images and the support they could lend to his theories.

Throughout the book, Smith uses the influential views of the art critic and social commentator John Ruskin as an effective proxy for the world with which Darwin had to engage. For example, Darwin's ideas on sexual selection in The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex were an affront to Ruskin's appreciation of beauty. Similarly, Darwin's unsentimental account of The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals seemed to threaten the fine arts that Ruskin so valued. This was all the more galling for Darwin's obviously limited aesthetic sensibilities. As Smith puts it, Ruskin felt that Expression... was "a piece of aesthetic vulgarity that could only drag down human culture".

The rich sweep of Charles Darwin and Victorian Visual Culture means that there is something here for everyone, even those with only a passing interest in this period. Although printed in black and white, the range of illustrations is superb. Smith expertly places Darwin's illustrations alongside the kinds of images his readership was more familiar with, and he plays with the ways in which Darwin and his ideas were portrayed in mainstream media.

Smith's final chapter, which focuses on the illustrations in Darwin's last book, is particularly enjoyable. The Formation of Vegetable Mould, through the Action of Worms was, Smith says, vintage Darwin - an examination of "worm shit, lovingly rendered as an object of wonder". For the likes of Ruskin, Darwin's engravings of a worm's gut and its castings would have been nothing but "grotesque". And the cross-section of a fallen stone at Stonehenge on its steady, worm-driven descent into the earth was an irreverent treatment of a national monument.

This does not seem to have bothered the visionary Darwin. For him, the purpose of these no-nonsense images was to capture and communicate his message with clarity. Just as Darwin's writings challenged many to see the natural world in a different light so too did the illustrations he chose.

Henry Nicholls is editor of the history of science journal Endeavour and a freelance journalist.

Charles Darwin and Victorian Visual Culture

Author - Jonathan Smith
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Pages - 349
Price - £60.00
ISBN - 0 521 85690 6

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