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Review of Darwin's Beagle Voyage 20th March 2024

A lecture given by James Taylor

Many Sunday evenings we have been thrilled by programmes such as "Planet Earth" and the fabulous images on our tv screens. David Attenborough has famously been to all corners of the world to show us scenes that we would otherwise not witness.

Imagine then how incredible it must have been when Darwin's voyage aboard The Beagle provided an abundance of detailed illustrations, giving witness to the beauty and wonders of far-flung places. The Victorians were fascinated by the strange animals and indigenous people. This was a time before mass travel and in the early days of photography.

Dr James Taylor illustrated his talk with a continual flow of beautiful paintings, many of which were created by the artists who travelled with Charles Darwin. Every picture tells a story and, in many cases, there were two stories - the one on the canvas and another behind it. We heard about life on board the ship and the relationship between Charles Darwin and Captain Robert Fitzroy. They managed a congenial companionship over a five-year voyage despite their different personalties. Darwin had in fact been Fitzroy's fourth choice as the naturalist on The Beagle. Upon return they were to take different paths with regard to the theory of evolution versus creation. They also did not share exactly the same views towards slavery - Darwin the more liberal by nature. However, Fitzoy's paintings were sublime and added much to the narrative of the voyage.

The official Beagle artists depicting this amazing story were Augustus Earle, then replaced by Conrad Martens. We were treated to snippets of anecdotes which prompted these elegant paintings. Most shocking though was Darwin's illustration of the three young native Fuegians who were effectively kidnapped and brought to Britain to be renamed and 'civilised'. Needless to say, that the story does not end well and is a window to the hubris and racism of that time.

Darwin himself was a controversial figure as he, along with Alfred Russell-

Wallace broached the idea of evolution. James Taylor's talk however, was more focused on the intriguing imagery that is the legacy of Darwin's fascinating life.

Each image brought to life an aspect of Darwin, whether it be his family life or his adventures and the research which dominated throughout his years.

We started and finished with the picture of the bank note which features the iconic portrait of Darwin. James Taylor reminded us of the millions of people who must have seen this but I wonder how many realise the arduous achievement of his work. The illustrations are as important today in revealing this, as they must have been then.


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