Science: At Home With Charles Darwin

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The Independent Culture
Down House was Darwin's home

and laboratory for 40 years.

Now, after a century of neglect,

it is to open as a museum

dedicated to the man and his

family. Michael Leapman

paid an exclusive preview visit

UNDER THE stairs at Down House, Charles Darwin's home for 40 years, is a games cupboard with a half open door. Visitors, re-admitted to the house on Good Friday, after its two-year refurbishment, are encouraged to peep inside.

Along with a tennis racket and net, a croquet mallet and a set of bowls, they will see a brown paper parcel bearing the message, "Only to be opened in the event of my death". It is not an original artefact, but if it were it would contain the manuscript of an essay, dating from 1844, outlining the ideas that later formed the basis of On the Origin of Species. Though already convinced that his theory of evolution and natural selection was valid, Darwin knew it would be denounced by the church and other powerful bodies. As a virtually unknown 35-year-old, he did not have the confidence to publish it.

That year saw one of his many bouts of serious illness. He was a chronic invalid for most of his life, plagued by a mysterious disease that may have been a combination of a nervous disorder and a fever he picked up during his five-year voyage around the southern hemisphere on the Beagle. As his grand-daughter Gwen Raverat wrote, in her book Period Piece: "At Down, ill-health was considered normal."

In 1844 Darwin feared, not for the first time or the last, that he was going to die. So he parcelled up the manuscript, stuffed it in the cupboard and left a note to his wife Emma, urging her to get it published if he did not survive the crisis. In fact he struggled on until 1882, when he died at 73. But it took him 15 years to pluck up the courage to allow On the Origin of Species to appear in 1859.

The package in the cupboard encapsulates, in a single image, the essence of Darwin's achievement and the impact he knew it would have. This method of telling his story, using "props" where original items are not available, is typical of the style in which Down House at Downe, south of Bromley in Kent, has been restored by English Heritage - a style sometimes as inventive and unorthodox as the man it celebrates.

Since acquiring the house two years ago, thanks to a pounds 705,000 donation from the Wellcome Foundation, English Heritage have spent pounds 2.2m on a restoration aimed in part at giving visitors the impression that they have just dropped in on a Victorian professional household. Inside the entrance, an unopened parcel of books from the London Library rests on the hall table, along with a rack of letters addressed to the great man, properly stamped with Penny Blacks. Above the table, three pictures with religious themes may surprise those who know that Darwin was a self-styled agnostic. Emma was deeply religious, which explains her distress at the reaction of the church to Darwin's theory - the only known source of disharmony in their 43-year marriage.

Four rooms on the ground floor have been reconstituted as the couple had them furnished in the 1870s, based mainly on the evidence of photographs taken by their son Francis. Where original pieces of furniture have been found, they have been put back where they were. New fabrics have been woven to the patterns shown in the pictures. The large garden, which Darwin used as an outdoor laboratory, is also being restored to its appearance in his day. The upstairs rooms, by contrast, have been converted into a series of innovative exhibits that illustrate and explain his scientific work, starting with his voyage on the Beagle and culminating in the controversy that followed publication of his theories.

The creation of what is, in effect, a shrine to one of the truly great Victorian thinkers has taken longer than expected. When I trudged through mud and donned a hard hat for a visit at the beginning of last year, the alterations were at an early stage; but English Heritage still hoped the house would open last summer.

Delays mounted, but the time was put to good use in pursuing the most exciting part of the project, the hunt for Darwin memorabilia. He had a large family and his possessions were spread among many descendants. When the house first became a museum in 1929 some treasures found their way back. Many more have since been traced and are part of the new display, among them valuable prints and glass negatives by the pioneer photographer Julia Margaret Cameron. One of her portraits shows Darwin, white-bearded and grave, oozing dignity. Beneath it is a note in his own hand that says: "I like this photograph very much better than any other which has been taken of me."

Other intriguing finds include a folding chair, a kind of deckchair, that appears in Francis Darwin's photograph of the dining room. Seeing the picture last year, a family member recognised the chair as one in Darwin's house. Now it has come home and stands where it was in the picture, by the window to catch the afternoon sun. Another descendant, clearing out his house before moving, found a stack of books with Darwin's name in, part of his original Down House library. They are now back and on show, along with several newly-acquired portraits.

The family has played an important role throughout the restoration. "They have been brilliant," says Tracy Thursfield, who manages the house for English Heritage. "They're still sending things." When English Heritage acquired Down, they set up a steering group and invited family members to join it. One was Randal Keynes - descended not just from Darwin but also from John Maynard Keynes.

"My grandmother was Darwin's grand-daughter," he says. "She didn't know him but she spent many summer holidays at Down House with her sister and mother and father. They all loved the house and garden and from my earliest childhood I remember her accounts of it.

"The family left it in 1896 when Emma died, and it became a school until the 1920s. I remember going back there in 1959 for the hundredth anniversary of On the Origin of Species and my grandmother gave all of us great-great- grandchildren a copy of the book.

"I got really interested in the story when I was shown a box of mementoes of Darwin's daughter Annie, who died at Down House when she was 11." These poignant keepsakes were in the hands of another family member and are today on show in the children's former schoolroom, which now houses a charming exhibition illustrating Darwin the family man. In a cupboard is a shelf with a name gouged into it: "William Erasmus Darwin, 1853." It was carved by Charles Darwin's eldest son when he was 12.

English Heritage's director of museums and collections, Julius Bryant, says: "We're making sure that the other Darwin comes across; not just the bald, bearded grand old man but the young father with seven children running around amid all the hurly-burly of family life. It's an important story in itself, how he was able to retreat into his study, while using his family as a kind of domestic laboratory for monitoring his own species."

Visitors may at first be surprised by the furnishings. The 1870s photographs showed that the rooms were not cluttered with Victoriana as you might expect from that period, but that the bulk of the furniture was late Regency. "We're furnishing it to reflect Darwin's taste," says Mr Bryant. "And our ambition is to bring out the personality of a family man, genius and father."

The naturalist's study is cluttered with papers, books and specimens. His original work chair, on wheels so that he could move it around to catch the light, stands with its back to the window. On the table in front is the board that he rested on the arms of the chair as a work surface. In the corner is a crude curtained shower, which he used to relieve the symptoms of his illness.

The pictures on the walls here are revealing. They depict the men who influenced his thought most profoundly: Leonardo da Vinci, the botanist Sir Joseph Hooker, the geologist Sir Charles Lyell and his two grandfathers, the botanist Erasmus Darwin and the potter Josiah Wedgwood (Emma, Darwin's cousin as well as his wife, was also a Wedgwood.)

Evidence of Darwin's tireless experiments is everywhere. In the parlour, next to the piano, is a bassoon. One story is that he brought worms in to listen to music and see if they responded.

The drive for authenticity even extends to giving the house a distinctive aroma. Gwen Raverat's account of her visits here mentions a wonderful smell, possibly of furniture polish. Ms Thursfield has acquired some cedar wood oil and pot-pourri to scatter around, hoping to simulate the same effect.

The first of the upstairs exhibition rooms is about the voyage of the Beagle, the key formative experience of Darwin's scientific life. In his autobiography he wrote that it "determined my whole career". He collected hundreds of specimens of plants, fossils and dead creatures, a few of which are on show. By observing their similarities and differences, he began the train of thought that led to his ground-breaking theories.

Some of the copious journals that he wrote on the voyage are displayed here, along with personal items such as his Panama hat. His wonder and excitement at what he saw come across vividly, as well as his devotion to the meticulous detail of his research. If television had existed then, you can imagine him enthusing over his finds like a 19th-century David Attenborough.

His former bedroom now contains hands-on displays that give life to some of his theories. A large jigsaw, with the continents fitting together then breaking up, illustrates the idea of continental drift, accounting for the links between species in different parts of the world.

Evolution is explained in a display that shows how birds' beaks vary according to their feeding habits. Discoveries about DNA came long after Darwin's death, but they are included here because he knew that there had to be a system for transferring genes from parent to child, allowing characteristics to be inherited. Further displays tell Darwin's life story, starting with his undistinguished educational career and his growing interest in the natural world. A room is devoted to the controversy following publication of On the Origin of Species, and we learn of his later work on such diverse subjects as climbing and carnivorous plants and variations in pigeon breeds.

A visit to the garden provides a fresh angle on all this, for it was here that he made many of his observations and carried out experiments. Intrigued by the action of worms in bringing matter to the surface of the soil, he fitted a stone into the lawn with instruments that measured how its level increased slightly year by year.

A replica of the stone is in place. His experimental flower and vegetable beds are being restored and so is the greenhouse, where he would repair every day to check his plants. The lab, built in the garden during the last years of his life, will be used for scientific demonstrations.

Randal Keynes has taken a particular interest in the garden restoration. "So much of Darwin's approach to the natural world was derived from what he saw around him," he says. "He was exceptional among scientists in being able to explain so much from plants, birds and insects. He was fascinated by what nature was doing."

The most remarkable survival is the sandwalk, or what Darwin called his "thinking path". Nearly every day, usually accompanied by his dog, he would walk a gravelled circuit of about half a mile, through a wood and with long views across fields, grappling with problems that arose in his work. He would make a pile of stones and kick one away each time he passed, to keep track of how many circuits he had done.

Visitors will be able to follow the exact path, for as many circuits as they like, as they ponder the legacy of a great man to whose memory English Heritage, in this meticulous and well-considered restoration, have done fitting justice.

Down House is at Downe, off the A233 between Bromley and Biggin Hill. Open Wednesday to Sunday from 20 April to end of October 10am to 6pm, and from November to January 10am to 4pm. Admission pounds 5, children pounds 2.50. English Heritage members free. Entry by timed ticket only. All visits must be booked at least a day in advance. For reservations phone 0870 603 0145