'Endless Forms: Charles Darwin, Natural Science and the Visual Arts'

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'Endless Forms: Charles Darwin, Natural Science and the Visual Arts'

Yale Centre for British Art 12 February-3 May 2009

Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge 16 June-4 October 2009

'Human kind', as TS Eliot observed, 'cannot bear too much reality', but with the publication in 1859 of On the Origin of Species Charles Darwin really rubbed our noses in it. The following year, in a formal debate in the University Museum at Oxford, TH Huxley--'Darwin's bull-dog'--responded to Bishop 'Soapy Sam' Wilberforce's mocking enquiry whether he was descended from an ape on his mother's or his father's side of the family with the retort that he would rather be the offspring of two apes than be a man who was afraid of the truth. Fear was only the half of it, though. Darwin's ideas, once they were loose in the culture, took off in all sorts of unexpected directions. The curators of this exhibition, not content merely to illustrate them (though such an unambitious show might have included many of the same exhibits), set out first to map the impact those ideas made in the 19th century and then to present the visual evidence for the changes wrought in the mind-set of the society that had, perforce, to accommodate them. So this was not really (or at least, not primarily) an art exhibition at all. Many of the exhibits were not works of art and, among those that were, pride of place was given to some that were not altogether 'fine'. It was far from being merely another Tanner and tickler of the soul's sleep' (as Ruskin called art that appeals only to the aesthetic sensibilities of its audience) but required us, just as Darwin required his contemporaries to do, to wake up, face reality, and start thinking.

Darwin's evolutionary theories came hot on the heels of Charles Lyell's geological revelations (his Principles of Geology was published during 1830-3), which demonstrated that the Earth was vastly older than Bible-based studies had alleged. The rage for specimen-collecting and fossil-hunting appealed to the empirical temper of the times, which was also catered to by the new medium of photography and by the laboriously studied super-realism of Pre-Raphaelite painting. This lust to know, and to see clearly, was often inadvertently destructive. In a beautiful and eloquent passage from his book Father and Son (1907) Edmund Gosse acknowledged Darwin ('centuries of natural selection'), but implicitly blamed him for the damage done.

   The ring of living beauty drawn about our shores was a very thin
   and fragile one. It had existed all those centuries solely in
   consequence of the indifference, the blissful ignorance of man.
   These rock-basins, fringed by corallines, filled with still water
   almost as pellucid as the upper air itself, thronged with beautiful
   sensitive forms of life,--they exist no longer, they are all
   profaned, and emptied, and vulgarised. An army of 'collectors'
   has passed over them, and ravaged every corner of them. The
   fairy paradise has been violated, the exquisite product of
   centuries of natural selection has been crushed under the rough
   paw of well-meaning, idle-minded curiosity.

The exhibition included William Henry Fox Talbot's calotype The Geologists (c1843), which shows a man and a woman poking at a minutely detailed cliff-face. Pegwell Bay, Kent--A Recollection of October 5th, 1858 (1858-60), by the Anglo-Catholic painter William Dyce, is another glum meditation on evanescence. The artist's family are represented on the beach (part of Gosse's 'army of collectors') engaged in some serious nature-study. Carefully delineated rock strata in the distant cliffs speak of immense stretches of geological time. Not only the picture's title, but Donati's comet, visible in the sky, date the image exactly, but the presence of the comet also demonstrates the passage of aeons that dwarf a human lifetime. Glimpsed once, it will not reappear in Earth's skies for more than another two millennia. …