Illustrating 'Savagery': Sir John Lubbock and Ernest Griset

By Murray, Tim | Antiquity, June 2009 | Go to article overview

Illustrating 'Savagery': Sir John Lubbock and Ernest Griset


Murray, Tim, Antiquity


'Utopia, which we have long looked upon as synonymous with an evident impossibility, which we have ungratefully regarded as 'too good to be true', turns out on the contrary to be the necessary consequence of natural laws, and once more we find that the simple truth exceeds the most brilliant flights of the imagination' (Lubbock 1865: 492).

'Reading Malthus, he [Wallace] grasped that living nature was in effect the workhouse world writ large. Ruthless struggle was everywhere the law, not just among London's starving poor. Adaptation comes through competition. Progress costs lives' (Moore 1997: 293).

Introduction

Much has been written about the extraordinary impact of Darwinism during the mid- to late nineteenth century, expressed in the scholarship of 'reception studies' (see for example Ellegard 1958; Glick 1988; Numbers & Stenhouse 1999). A significant focus has been on developing an understanding of the impact of Darwinian thinking on just about every aspect of Victorian society, particularly on literature, science, politics and social relations (see for example Beer 1983; Frayter 1997; Lorimer 1997; Moore 1997; Paradis 1997; Browne 2001). A great deal of attention has also been paid (by historians and philosophers of science) into the specifics of how the Darwinian message was disseminated so quickly and so broadly. Here the interest lies in the links between the rhetoric of scientific naturalism and the politics of the day, be it Whig-Liberal or Tory (see for example Clark 1997; Barton 1998, 2004; Clifford et al. 2006). A consequent interest lies in the ways in which science was popularised in Victorian Britain (see especially Lightman 1997, 2007).

Historians of archaeology have generally been slow to incorporate the tenor of this research into their accounts of the rise of prehistoric archaeology during this period, though there are notable exceptions (see for example Stocking 1987; Owen 2000; Patton 2007). Taking into account this recent work, and the solid contribution of older accounts (see for example Hutchinson 1914; Duff 1924; Pumphrey 1958; Murray 1990), I attempt here to delve deeper into these complexities, by publishing and analysing a suite of pictures commissioned by the pre-eminent prehistorian Sir John Lubbock (1834-1913), populariser of Darwinism, tireless advocate for the importance of science in society and Liberal social activist. The analysis will not be straightforward, if only because of the sheer breadth of Lubbock's interests within science, not to mention outside it. Clark (1997) among others (such as Stocking 1987), has noted the great ambiguities that lie within him, and the probability that Lubbock's polymathy will resist simplistic rendering.

Nevertheless the use of the pictures is revealing. The visualisation of human ancestors has been a particular focus of past and present research, if only because it is abundantly clear that 'ways of seeing' our ancestors are very much a product of the ways we see ourselves (see for example Moser 1998; Milner 2007). At the same time archaeologists have also begun to explore the histories of collections that lie at the heart of museums great and small all over the world, and to work out what these histories might contribute to the history of archaeology itself (see for example Owen 2006; MacGregor 2007, 2008).

The pictures to be considered in this essay come from a suite of 20 created for Lubbock by the Victorian illustrator Ernest Griset (1844-1907). Nineteen are currently housed in the Museum of the London Borough of Bromley at Orpington (some are on display in its Avebury Room). The remaining picture is in private hands in Sydney, Australia, gifted by Lubbock's grand-daughter to a friend. Only two are dated, Griset 18 painted in 1869, and Griset 20 painted in 1871. We know from oral histories and the observations of visitors to Lubbock's house at 'High Elms' in Kent that the paintings were originally associated with Lubbock's museum there, and were subsequently distributed throughout the house. …

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