RECORD: Anon. 1932. Darwin at Down: the house and garden. The Times (19 April): 19.
REVISION HISTORY: Transcribed (single key) by AEL Data 2010, corrections by John van Wyhe 2.2012. RN1
THE HOUSE AND GARDEN
FROM A CORRESPONDENT
On April 19, 50 years ago, Charles Darwin died in his home at Downe, Kent, where, as an inscription now records, he had "thought and worked for forty years." Down House, as it is now spelt in deference to the usage of his time, has become within recent years a national memorial to his memory, being vested, to that end, in the British Association by Sir Buckston Browne.
The preservation of a home is an honour rarely accorded to the great, but it has more than one justification in Darwin's case. The commemoration, as such, of one of the greatest of thinkers and leaders of thought, needs no argument to support it. The commemorative tablet alone is a worthy method. But the ground floor of Down House, which is freely open to the public, not only exhibits a notable collection of Darwiniana, but also, in the "old study," exemplifies as probably no other room does elsewhere the workroom of a scientific student of the last century, and as such is worthy of a star in any guidebook.
Here the "Origin of Species" was written, and by far the greater part of the rest of Darwin's work was done. The furniture, the fittings, all were his, save for a few details closely imitated. Even his library has returned on loan to its place, for it came through his son, Francis Darwin, to the Professor of Botany in Cambridge "for the time being," and the present holder of that office has generously placed it at Down. In the curious armchair on its high castors Darwin sat writing, resting on his knees the pad which is still preserved. In the drawers of the revolving table he kept some of his specimens and simple appliances: they are there yet. In one of the windows there stands his microscope, almost to be called primitive. This room, then, may be said to focus the memorial to Darwin's life-work; but Down does more than that.
Let those who would realize this to the full acquaint themselves with the many references in the published letters of Darwin and of Emma Darwin, his wife, to the house, and, in particular, to the garden. Then it is possible to make up, from what can now be seen at Down, the mental picture of a family as happy as it was eminent, and loving its home.
The signs of more recent neglect are still, alas! upon the garden; though something has been done to obliterate them during the past three years of the British Association's ownership. Some of the landmarks are still to be seen: the bank against which Darwin liked to lie: the great limes overshadowing it; the beam of the children's swing between the yew trees. The azalea bed still flourishes; the long shady border, with its flowering shrubs, has been partly renovated, with generous help from Kew Gardens. The greenhouse and the little laboratory attached to it still stand. The flat round stone on the surface of the lawn, used in connexion with the study of the work of earth-worms, was found beneath the surface, still in place, by digging under the direction of those who knew where it should be: a glazed frame now covers it. In the Sandwalk, scene of Darwin's daily exercise and playground of his family, the hollies have over-run all else, and Mrs. Darwin's delight in the woodland flowers can now be imagined only; but a first attack has been made on the superabundant undergrowth, and some, at least, of the clean beech-trunks again stand clear. The summerhouse at the end of the walk has vanished, but a replacement may here be thought permissible. Some of the trees in the meadow have vanished, too, and others are past their prime, but Major Leonard Darwin has recently added to the Association's debt of gratitude to him by planting new trees in their proper places, to his father's memory.
"Many gardens are more beautiful and varied, but few could have a greater charm of repose." So writes Mrs. Litchfield in the collection of "family letters" under the name of Emma Darwin. She adds that the flower beds "were often untidy," and in this respect it may be feared (or pleaded) that tradition is still preserved; but so also is the charm that she recalls. It may be hoped that it has become possible to recapture in Down House and its garden the spirit of the family which made it famous: such, at least, is one of the objects of those who now have the place in their charge.
When Darwin came to Down, in 1842, "the whole neighbourhood," as Mrs. Litchfield says, "was intensely rural and quiet, though only 16 miles from London Bridge." Darwin himself wrote full descriptive notes upon the locality during the early years of his residence; he records that "the first peculiarity which strikes a stranger unaccustomed to a hilly chalk country is the valleys, with their steep rounded bottoms, not furrowed with the smallest rivulet," and tells how "nearly all the land is ploughed, and is often left fallow, which gives the country a naked, red look" where the clay-with-flints (unhallowed soil for the gardener) caps the chalk. Much of the land has become pasture, often poor enough, but the pleasant "narrow strips, or, as they are here called, shaws of wood" remain, with some, at least, of the wild flowers in which Darwin delighted. The neighbourhood of Down is now almost enclaved, save to the south, in outer suburbs of London. The more reason for thankfulness that something of the "intensely rural" spirit remains to this little angle of Kent. Let those concerned with town planning and the preservation of rural England see that it is kept so.
A recent publication of the British Association states that "it may well be that in the future, as the outer circle of London extends, the preservation of Darwin's garden, the orchards, the meadows, and the plantation with the Sandwalk around it—his 'thinking path' —will be regarded as an aesthetic blessing, only less than as a dutiful tribute to his memory."
Return to homepage
Citation: John van Wyhe, editor. 2002-. The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online. (http://darwin-online.org.uk/)
File last updated 2 July, 2012