Magazine article History Today

Darwin at Home

Magazine article History Today

Darwin at Home

Article excerpt

`I like this photograph very much better than any other that has been taken of me' reeds the note penned under Julia Margaret Cameron's photograph taken in 1868 of the eminent evolutionist Charles Darwin. This serious, reflective-looking profile of Darwin takes pride of place in a line-up of portraits of the scientist at his newly refurbished home in Kent. This month English Heritage open the doors to Down House, where the author of the ground-breaking On the Origin of Species (1859) and Descent of Man (1871) lived with his family from 1842 until his death in 1882.

Those who visited the Georgian house before its closure in May 1996 will recall that, apart from Darwin's old study, those rooms open to the public contained not much more than a few dusty exhibits in glass display cases. Now, the ground floor -- billiard room, dining room, drawing room, study and hall -- have all been represented to evoke the Darwin family home as it was in 1876-77 towards the end of his life.

The transformation of Down House has been rapid. English Heritage acquired the house and thirty-six acres of land in 1996 with assistance from the Wellcome Trust and a grant of 1.783 million [pounds sterling] from the Heritage Lottery Fund. Despite being gifted to the nation as early as 1927, by the time the Natural History Museum took it over in 1993 and began fund-raising for its preservation the building was in a bad state of decay. With a brief spell as a girls' boarding school in the 1920s and some well-intentioned `improvements' by later care-takers, almost nothing remained of the original interior decoration from Darwin's day.

In between wrestling with his scientific theories, Darwin lived a surprisingly tranquil and domestic life at Down with his wife, Emma, and ten children (three of whom died). Against traditional notions of Victorian parenting, Darwin's offspring were very much to be seen and heard, enjoying the run of the house, including their father's study and joining their parents for meals with important guests. `He always made us feel that we were each of us creatures whose opinions and thoughts were valuable to him...' recalled his daughter Henrietta.

In Darwin's old, book-lined study with its cluttered surfaces littered with fossils and specimens, it is easy to imagine he has just stepped out for his mid-day constitutional. First reconstructed in 1929, this is the one room in the house to have escaped drastic alteration. In one corner behind a screen is a hip bath, testimony to Darwin's constant ill health, while, oddly, nearly all the furniture in here is on castors; there are tales of the children gliding up and down the polished hall floor on a large footstool.

Here, can be seen the elbow-worn armchair in which Darwin sat to write On the Origin of Species, the book he did not want to publish because of his wife's religious sensitivities and the furore he knew it would cause. Darwin hid the manuscript under the stairs with detailed instructors to Emma to be carried out after his death. In the event ego got the better of him and he unearthed it for publication when he heard that another scientist, Alfred Russel Wallace, had reached the same conclusions independently.

Not all the newly assembled interiors convey the presence of their one-time inhabitants to the same degree as the study. Perhaps this will come with time -- it is difficult to make a freshly painted and papered room feel lived in. With little on-site evidence, a set of glass plate negatives of the ground floor rooms, taken in about 1877 by one of the family and an inventory made shortly after Darwin's death have provided invaluable clues for the reconstruction. …

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