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Charles Darwin’s stolen Tree of Life sketch to go on display at Cambridge University Library



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Charles Darwin’s iconic ‘Tree of Life’ sketch – which was stolen and then returned to Cambridge University Library more than two decades after its disappearance – will go on public display for the first time this century in a major new exhibition opening on Saturday (July 9).

The ‘Tree of Life’ image forms part of one of Darwin’s manuscript notebooks where Darwin develops his theory in terms of geographical distribution, the origin of humans, and classification by descent.

Rachael Smithers, Senior Darwin Conservator, with the Tree of Life notebook going on display in Cambridge. Credit: Cambridge University Library (57836530)
Rachael Smithers, Senior Darwin Conservator, with the Tree of Life notebook going on display in Cambridge. Credit: Cambridge University Library (57836530)

Darwin in Conversation, an exhibition at Cambridge University Library, examines how the great naturalist sought help from a cast of thousands of men, women and even children across the globe as he wrote his foundational works on evolution such as On the Origin of Species.

As well as the returned Darwin Notebooks, other objects going on display include Darwin’s own first edition of Origin of Species, the squeaky kidney beans which became a viral ASMR hit, and beautifully illustrated sketchbooks from the voyage of HMS Beagle. On a more human level, the exhibition also includes letters from early girlfriends and the vexed correspondence where Darwin declares that: ‘I hate myself, I hate clover and I hate bees’.

Exhibition curator Dr Alison Pearn, associate director of the Darwin Correspondence Project, said: “Charles Darwin is one of the most famous names in science and through his letters we can all meet the man behind his world-changing ideas.

“Darwin’s letters are often unexpectedly warm, witty and engaging. Whether encountered as a raw young adventurer, a family man, or a grey-bearded celebrity, Charles Darwin had an infectious curiosity about the world around him.

“The letters mix science and gossip and Darwin counted many correspondents as friends even if he never met them. His global network of correspondents included women and men from all walks of life; from working-class pigeon breeders to aristocratic orchid-collectors, from Victorian asylum directors to some of the earliest female scientists and suffragettes. These extraordinary letters are a window into their lives, too.”Rare, now-celebrated pages of Darwin’s first draft of Origin – kept only because they were reused by his children for drawing paper – are also going on display.

The Battle of the Fruit and Vegetable Soldiers – drawn by Darwin’s children on the first draft pages of Origin of Species. Credit: Cambridge University Library (57836532)
The Battle of the Fruit and Vegetable Soldiers – drawn by Darwin’s children on the first draft pages of Origin of Species. Credit: Cambridge University Library (57836532)

The exhibition has been curated using the 15,000 letters Darwin wrote and received during his lifetime, the majority of which are housed at the University Library in Cambridge in the largest archive of Darwin-related material anywhere in the world. The Library is also home to the archives of Sir Isaac Newton and Professor Stephen Hawking among many others.

Among Darwin’s most notable correspondents were American botanist Asa Gray, Kew Gardens Director Joseph Hooker, American naturalist Mary Treat and Lydia Becker – who contributed to Darwin’s work on plants and also became noted for her tireless fight for women’s suffrage, arranging for the first woman to vote in a British election.

Darwin’s copy of the now-famous letter to Asa Gray outlining his theory of natural selection for the first time is just one example of the significance of the objects going on display Cambridge this summer.

Professor Jim Secord, Director of the Darwin Correspondence Project, said: “Letters were integral to Darwin’s working day and specimens of plants and creatures were sent to Darwin from all over the world including butterfly wings from Brazil and feathers from southeast Asia. He spent an hour of every day reading them and an hour replying to his letters – some of it fan mail – using them as a research tool or pleas for help. He wrote in the margins, cut them up and pasted them in his own notes.

“Although Darwin is one of the most famous names in the history of science, this exhibition also shows how he was one voice among a vast worldwide web of conversations that helped propel scientific discovery during his lifetime.”

Darwin in Conversation, which is free and open to all, draws on the 40-year mission of the Darwin Correspondence Project, also based at the Library, which since the 1970s, has worked tirelessly to transcribe and publish in print (and now digitally), every surviving letter that Charles Darwin wrote and received.

Darwin in Conversation runs from July 9-December 3, 2022 at Cambridge University Library. Entry is free. It will transfer to New York Public Library in 2023.



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