A watercolour painted of Charles Darwin on the ship Beagle is to go under the hammer at Sotheby’s. His theory of evolution by natural selection challenged the foundations of Western civilisation and profoundly changed our understanding of the world. Now, the only known painting of Darwin aboard the Beagle, the ship that carried the English naturalist on his historic voyage, has been unveiled following a sensational new discovery. The watercolour, painted by Augustus Earle (1793-1838) while anchored off the Patagonian coast in 1832, captures Darwin’s expedition as never seen before. Fossils and botanical specimens are hauled aboard the deck of the ship and examined as Darwin holds court, dressed in top hat and frock coat, at the centre of the composition. This remarkable group portrait of life on the HMS Beagle is estimated £50,000-70,000 and will be offered as part of the English Literature, History, Children’s Books and Illustrations sale in London on 15 December 2015.
The watercolour carries the tongue-in-cheek title “Quarter Deck of a Man of War on Diskivery of interesting Scenes on an Interesting Voyage” and is a light-hearted illustration probably created for the entertainment of the crew. It shows Darwin together with ten other crew members of HMS Beagle, including Robert FitzRoy, with fossils, botanical and mineralogical specimens. Each figure has their own speech bubble with words written in black ink: “Stand out of MY way!!! I’ve got specimens for the Captain!!!’, says a sailor delivering specimens to FitzRoy.
It is a lively and detailed scene that can be identified with an occasion of enormous importance in catalysing Darwin’s earliest insights into evolution. It shows a young Darwin in top hat – clearly recognizable although only half his face is visible – as the central figure, with fossils, brightly-coloured fish, and botanical specimens cluttering the quarterdeck at his feet. He is giving a long-winded pronouncement to an officer on the characteristics of an insect and is so caught up with his investigations that he is oblivious to the chaos around him. The deck is bustling as crew members bring more specimens for Darwin’s inspection: shells, seabirds, even an entire cabbage palm. Another crewmember is heaving a massive block of stone, carefully labelled with geological terms, to Captain FitzRoy, who is himself opining excitedly on the nature of a mineral. Not all the crew are engaging in the spirit of discovery: one sailor grumbles as he slopes off with a theodolite (and a bottle of rum) whilst an officer complains about the mess on the deck and others are engaged in taking bearings.
The watercolour can be attributed to the Beagle’s first shipboard artist, Augustus Earle (1793-1838), on stylistic grounds. It is markedly similar to known works by Earle created during his extensive travels. FitzRoy first commissioned Earle in October 1831, before the Beagle left England, and he soon befriended the other supernumerary on board, Charles Darwin. His health was not good, however, and he had to leave the ship and was replaced by Conrad Martens in August 1833.
The ship anchored in the harbour of Bahia Blanca, some 400 miles south of Buenos Aires in Patagonia, from 6 September to 19 October, and during this time Fitzroy and Darwin took a launch to Punta Alta, some 10 miles distant, to investigate the cliffs they had observed on arrival. Here they discovered an extraordinary diversity of fossils of extinct mammals that greatly excited Darwin, as FitzRoy recalled in his Narrative:
“My friend’s [Darwin’s] attention was soon attracted to some low cliffs … where he found some of those huge fossil bones, described in his work; and notwithstanding our smiles at the cargoes of apparent rubbish which he frequently brought on board, he and his servant used their pick-axes in earnest, and brought away what have since proved to be most interesting and valuable remains of extinct animals…”
Many details found in the watercolour echo known features of the Beagle voyage, and in turn the watercolour is an important new witness to one of the most renowned scientific voyages in history.