By George Beccaloni
In 1923, to mark the 100th anniversary of Alfred Russel Wallace's birth, a magnificent oil painting of him was donated to the Natural History Museum, London. It hung in the Museum's Central Hall for about 50 years, before being put into storage.
To help commemorate the 100th anniversary of Wallace's death in 2013, the portrait was repaired, cleaned and revarnished, and then returned to its original position on the wall near the statue of Charles Darwin on the main stairs of the Hall. On the 24 January 2013 it was unveiled by comedian and natural historian Bill Bailey to mark the launch of the Museum's year-long programme of events (named Wallace100), designed to commemorate the anniversary. To see a video of its second unveiling click HERE.
The Natural History Museum's portrait of Wallace.
© The Natural History Museum, London
History of the painting
Soon after Wallace's death on 7th November 1913 a Memorial Committee was set-up with the purpose of raising money to commission three memorials to him: a marble medallion with a carved side profile of his head for Westminster Abbey; a painting of him; and statue of him for the Natural History Museum. However, because of the First World War, which began only 8 months after Wallace died, the fundraising campaign had to be cut short, and only the medallion and the portrait were actually produced. The last was presented to the Museum by the artist Mr J. W. Beaufort who did not charge the Memorial Committee for his work.
The portrait was unveiled by Sir Charles Sherrington, President of the Royal Society, on 23 June 1923 during the 100th anniversary year of Wallace's birth. The following quotes are from the speech he gave (as reported by The Times on the same day):
"The portrait that has a fitting place within the walls of this building in memory of Alfred Russel Wallace will be cherished for many reasons here. To those great collections for which this building is the house and the shrine he contributed generously and largely. Much of the fruit that he gathered in his expeditions in the Malay Archipelago enriches the galleries here. But he did even more for this collection and for all collections of natural history throughout the world by contributing a renowned and fertile idea [i.e. evolution by natural selection] which has lent and lends them a further significance and a new meaning. He contributed an interpretation which forms a guiding thread to a great deal of the study which such collections as this render possible...."
"I suppose that that happy circumstance of the juxtaposition of the portrait that we see there and of the statue [of Darwin] by which we are standing represents in collocation the commemoration of two men of whom it may be said, perhaps, that never a day passes but their two names rise to the memories of the director and the distinguished staff who are with him to study and to help others to study these collections."
The portrait was hung on the wall above and to the right of the Museum's statue of Charles Darwin on the stairs of the Central Hall and it remained in this position for almost 50 years (it was moved in 1971). From 2009 to 2012 it was on public display in the Historical Collections Room of the Darwin Centre Cocoon, until I suggested it be moved back to its original location for the Wallace anniversary year.
Picture showing the Wallace painting in the Central Hall in c. 1930, from an Illustrated Guide to the
Exhibition Galleries published in 1931. Note that the statue in the centre at this time is Richard Owen,
not Darwin. The statue of Darwin was moved from this prime spot in September 1927 and
Owen remained there until 2009, when the Darwin statue was moved back for Darwin200.
The only information mentioned about the artist of the portrait in articles which mention the painting, is that his name was Mr J. W. Beaufort. I believe that he was probably the professional photographer Mr John William Beaufort, who was born in 1864 and died in Guildford in 1943. There are several reasons for reaching this conclusion.
First, there do not appear to be any professional artists named J. W. Beaufort who were active at around this time. Second, the painting is based on a photograph of Wallace taken in 1903 by the famous photography firm Elliott & Fry, and John William Beaufort happened to be the manager of that firm from 1915 to 1926.
Another thing that supports this theory, is that photographic firms in the late 19th and early 20th centuries often used to produce oil paintings for clients based on photographs, by photographically printing the image onto sensitised canvas and then painting over it. It would be interesting to know whether or not the Museum's portrait was produced in this way.
Beaufort's painting (left; © The Natural History Museum, London) and the photo
by Elliott & Fry in 1903 on which it is based (right; © English Heritage).