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A portrait of a boy and his plant

By Nicola Temple

On the 12th of February 1809, Charles Darwin was born in a large Georgian house, known as The Mount, in Shrewsbury. As a biologist, I am very familiar with the works of Darwin. And when I conjure an image of this man in my head it is of him in his 60s, bald on top and with a formidable beard. However, on a recent visit to the University of Bristol Botanic Garden, the curator, Nick Wray, showed me a portrait I had never seen before.

The portrait was completed in 1816, just before Darwin turned 7 years old and he is with his sister Catherine. It is a magnificent piece done using chalk on paper, by the artist Ellen Wallace Sharples (1769-1849), who was settled in Bristol at the time - not far from the Botanic Garden in Clifton [see note 1].

Nick pointed the portrait out to me because he is interested in the plant that Darwin is holding in the portrait. Children would have often been given something to hold while sitting for a portrait - it gave them something to do with their hands to prevent fidgeting. While Catherine has a posy of flowers in her hand, Charles is holding a clay pan on his knee with a plant in full bloom. This would have been no small feat for a child.
The portrait painted by Ellen Wallace Sharples in 1816
of Charles and Catherine Darwin.

Nick recognised the plant held by Darwin as almost certainly Lachenalia aloides (the opal flower), which is a native to the Western Cape of South Africa. Nick informed me that Cape flora were very in vogue during this period. The collecting activities and botanical observations of horticulturist-explorers, such as W. Paterson, Francis Masson, Robert Gordon, W.H.C. Lichtenstein, John Barrow and William Burchell, created a voracious appetite among Europeans for the curious plants of the Western Cape, while established trade routes enabled their transport back to Europe. So it is very likely that the children of a wealthy family would have been given such exotic pieces to hold rather than a favourite toy.

The artist almost certainly painted the portrait at the Darwin’s family home, The Mount. Records show that their impressive house had equally impressive gardens, including a conservatory and hothouse. The Lachenalia aloides likely came from one of their own glasshouses. Grown correctly in a cool frost free glasshouse, this little plant flowers from February-March. In a warm glasshouse it would flower earlier.

In an article written for the Garden History Society by Susan Campbell (Vol. 40, No 2 Winter 2012), she lists the plants cultivated at the Mount, including those growing in the Conservatory and Hothouse. In these lists, one species of Lachenalia is mentioned, Lachenalia pendula, which is now known as Lachenalia bulbifera. This species is almost always red in colour with the robust flower spike leaning to one side. However, yellow tipped orange forms have been recorded in the wild. Whether the plant in the portrait was misidentified in the original plant list or it was correct and an unusual orange and yellow form was cultivated, we shall never know. On examining the portrait carefully, its habit, erect inflorescence and the colour of the flowers, suggests the plant was wrongly identified and should be Lachenalia aloides. Nick goes onto suggest that, “the presence of this Cape bulb flowering in this portrait is evidence that the chalk picture was made around the 12 February 1816, Charles Darwin’s seventh birthday. The picture may have been commissioned deliberately to commemorate the occasion”.

About Lachenalia aloides

There are about 110 different species of Lachenalia, 80 of which are found in the Cape region of South Africa. L. aloides has a number of different varieties, all of which grow on granite or sandstone outcrops. The flowers can vary quite a bit in their colour. Some plants have flowers that are nearly entirely yellow, while others are magenta at the base turning yellow and then to green.

The Lachenalia genus are geophytes, which means that they spend part of the year dormant as a fleshy underground structure, such as a bulb, rhizome or tuber. South Africa is a global hotspot of geophyte diversity. There are 2,100 species across 20 different families in the area and 84% of them are endemic.

Lachenalia aloides is naturally pollinated by sunbirds, which use their long curved bill to access the nectar at the base of the tubular flowers. It was widely-thought until fairly recently that sunbird-pollinated plants had almost always evolved perch-like structures to make feeding for the sunbird easier. However, L. aloides has no such structure and the sunbirds simply sit on the ground to feed on the flowers - an observation that has been made with other low-growing sunbird-pollinated species.

Lachenalia in the Botanic Garden

Lachenalia aloides is in bloom at the
Botanic Garden right now if you want to
have a look at this interesting South African bulb.
The Botanic Garden has some specimens of Lachenalia aloides and other Lachenalia species in the glasshouses and, much like the plant Darwin is holding in the portrait, they are currently in bloom. The portrait would have been painted around this time of year, when there would have been very few plants in bloom. This further supports Nick’s conclusion regarding the species.

The Lachenalia story was one aspect of a lecture titled The Origin & Diversity of Flowering Plants, which was given recently by Nick Wray to the members of the annual Darwin Festival, held each February in Shrewsbury. The audience, made up of academics, ecologists, naturalists and keen amateur and professional gardeners, were taken through the flower pollination syndromes, illustrating the diversity that has evolved over millions of years. Nick discussed the work of the Angiosperm Phylogeny Group (APG) work, the planting of the APG III displays at the Botanic Garden and the difficult task of cultivating Amborella trichopoda and its place at the base of the extant living Angiosperm phylogenetic tree. The talk was illustrated by plants that were brought from the Botanic Garden. This created a lot of interest and added to the sense of place as the talk was held in the Shrewsbury Unitarian Church where Darwin’s mother took him and her other children to worship until Charles was thirteen. When, with an eye to his future university life, Darwin would have to attend a Church of England Church to ensure he would be eligible for a university course as students from Unitarian families would not be admitted.

The group were very appreciative of Nick’s talk and plan to make a summer visit to the Botanic Garden to enjoy the garden and explore its various evolution displays.

Notes:

1. Ellen Wallace Sharples met her husband in Bath where he was her tutor. After they married, the couple travelled back and forth a couple of times between England and America. When Ellen’s husband died in 1810, she moved to an apartment in Clifton with her two children (also artists) in 1811. She made her living doing portraits, as did her children. When she died in 1849, she left a substantial sum to the Bristol Academy which was instrumental in financing Bristol's first art gallery, now the Royal West of England Academy.

Sources:

Campbell, S. 2009. ‘Sowed for Mr C.D’: The Darwin family’s garden diary for The Mount, Shrewsbury, 1838-65. Garden 
     History 37 (2): 1-16.
Campbell, S. 2012. ‘Its situation...was equisite in the extreme’: ornamental flowers, shrubs and trees in the Darwin 
     family’s garden at The Mount, Shrewsbury, 1838-65. Garden History 40 (2): 1-32.
Procheş, Ş., Cowling, R.M., Goldblatt, P., Manning, J.C., Snijman, D.A. 2006. An overview of the Cape geophytes. 
     Biological Journal of the Linnean Society 87: 27-43.
Turner, R.C., Midgley, J.J. 2016. Sunbird-pollination in the geoflorous species Hyobanch sanguinea (Orobanchaceae) 
     and Lachenalia luteola (Hyacinthaceae). South African Journal of Botany 102: 186-9.


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