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Erasmus Darwin

Erasmus Darwin, by Joseph Wright, based on a work of probably 1770s -NPG 88 - © National Portrait Gallery, London

© National Portrait Gallery, London

Mid-Georgian Portraits Catalogue

Erasmus Darwin

after Joseph Wright
based on a work of probably 1770s
30 in. x 25 in. (760 mm x 635 mm)
NPG 88

This portraitback to top

NPG 88 is not of prime quality; in 1860 it was plausibly suggested that it could be by James Rawlinson of Derby who ‘was very successful in his copies’ of Wright’s work. [1] Wright’s original portrait, now in Darwin College, Cambridge, [2] was described by Anna Seward as ‘a simply contemplative portrait of the most perfect resemblance’ [3]; since it was not listed in Wright’s account book, it was conceivably painted for the sitter in payment for medical treatment. [4]
Another contemporary version, descended from the sitter’s brother, William Darwin, is in a private collection; [5] a weak version (wearing a grey suit, the arms resting on a closed book), is in the Johnson Birthplace Museum, Lichfield, while the Wedgwood medallion and the relief in Lichfield Cathedral, both described below, were based on the Wright head.

Footnotesback to top

1) P. Booth to Scharf, 23 February 1860 (NPG archive); the same letter said that Mrs Booth ‘remembers her Mother saying that a copy of Wright’s own portrait (with a broad hat) by Rawlinson was equal to the original, & she was herself an artist & a woman of superiour taste & talent’.
2) B. Nicolson, Joseph Wright of Derby, 1968, I, p 193, no.50; exhibited J. Egerton et at., Wright of Derby, London, Paris, New York, 1990 (144); by descent from the sitter’s second illegitimate daughter, Susan Parker (Mrs Hadley, 1772-1856) and Charles Darwin, see M. Keynes, 'Portraits of Erasmus Darwin, FRS, by Joseph Wright, James Rawlinson and William Coffee', Notes and Records, Royal Society, London, 1994, pp 71-2.
3) A. Seward, Erasmus Darwin, 1804, p 21.
4) M. Keynes, 'Portraits of Erasmus Darwin, FRS, by Joseph Wright, James Rawlinson and William Coffee', Notes and Records, Royal Society, London, 1994, p 71. The portrait was engraved as an oval by W. Bromley 1795 (another state lettered H. Wheelwright), ‘from an original drawing’; by J. T. Wedgwood in 1820 ‘from a Picture by Wright in the possession of Mrs Darwin’; M. Alpin 1825.
5) B. Nicolson, Joseph Wright of Derby, 1968, no.51.

Referenceback to top

Keynes 1994
M. Keynes, ‘Portraits of Erasmus Darwin, FRS, by Joseph Wright, James Rawlinson and William Coffee’, Notes and Recrods, Royal Society, London, 48, I, 1994, p 72.

Nicolson 1968
B. Nicolson, Joseph Wright of Derby, 2 vols., 1968, I, p 193, under no.51.

Physical descriptionback to top

Grey eyes, white powdered wig, wearing a white neck-scarf and shirt and a dull grey-green coat with matching buttons.

Provenanceback to top

The sitter’s illegitimate daughter, Mary Parker (d. 1859);1 Anna Maria Jerome [née Day], from whom purchased, through her cousin Josephine Vickery, 1859.2

1 Her mother was Mary Parker (1753-1820), who married Joseph Day of Birmingham in 1782; see note 2.
2 Scharf sketched the portrait on 10 November 1859 ‘at Mrs Vickery’s’ (Sir George Scharf's Trustees' Sketch Books, 3/49). Josephine Vickery wrote to the NPG (12 December 1859): ‘it would be difficult for me to give any information or particulars as to relationship - of the late owner - by letter but I should be happy to give you a Viva Voce explication’. A. P. Booth told Scharf that the NPG picture came from ‘Mrs A. M. Day probably the wife of a son or a Daughter’ of the Mr Day who had married Mary Parker (23 November 1860; NPG archive), see note 1 above. Elizabeth Greaves confirmed that Mary Parker had had a portrait of Erasmus Darwin by Wright which she gave to a relative and which was sold to the NPG (letter to Charles Darwin, 14 December 1877; Down House MSS).

Exhibitionsback to top

Regency Portraits, Kenwood, 1986; Apples to Atoms, Portraits of Scientists from Newton to Rutherford, NPG travelling exhibition, Science Museum, Norwich, Grasmere, Coalbrookdale, 1986-87; Darwin und Darwinismus, Dresden 1994 (2/3); Romantic Icons, Dove Cottage, the Wordsworth Museum, Grasmere, 1999 (8).

This extended catalogue entry is from the out-of-print National Portrait Gallery collection catalogue: John Ingamells, National Portrait Gallery: Mid-Georgian Portraits 1760-1790, National Portrait Gallery, 2004, and is as published then. For the most up-to-date details on individual Collection works, we recommend reading the information provided in the Search the Collection results on this website in parallel with this text.

View all known portraits for Erasmus Darwin

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