Charles Darwin ….
The English scientist Charles Darwin (1809-1882) was a naturalist, geologist and biologist best known for his contributions to the science of evolution. He published his theory of evolution with compelling evidence in his 1859 book On the Origin of Species. His five-year voyage on HMS Beagle established him as an eminent geologist and publication of his journal of the voyage made him famous as a popular author.
Comfortable, private, quiet: what more could a Victorian gentleman require? Charles Darwin’s life of the mind was almost entirely pursued in his study. The room was his refuge – and also an intellectual powerhouse. This was where he wrote On the Origin of Species, the controversial book that transformed the way scientists think about nature. It was here that he received the shocking news that Alfred Russel Wallace had independently arrived at the same theory of evolution by natural selection, and here that he encountered the storm of criticism when Origin of Species was published in 1859. Although it was the most private of places, hidden away in a village in Kent, Darwin’s activities made it the centre of a global movement for scientific reform.
Darwin researched and wrote 10 substantial books at Down House. He sat in the high-backed leather chair by the fireside, with a board balanced on his knees, his papers and notes close to hand in the alcove behind, surrounded by portraits of his wife and closest friends, the door ajar so that the children might run in. He was a warm-hearted husband and father, and let his children play on the round-topped stool, punting it around the room with his walking stick. At regular intervals he would pick up his hat for a brisk walk around the garden.
But he was also sick. He used the washroom corner, tucked away on the left, during regular bouts of nausea, their cause still undetermined. His study was also where he retreated when guests in the house began to tire him, where he went to read and be quiet. Only the most select visitors were invited inside. It was almost as if he recreated his life on board HMS Beagle, the ship that had earlier taken him around the world. His study was like another cabin, insulated from the world, his wife and household staff like well-ordered midshipmen. Only with this sense of stability, order and privacy did he feel able to put his ideas in front of the world.
Text: The Guardian – Writers’ Rooms (2008).