RECORD: Darwin, C. R. 1947. [Unrecorded letter to A. R. Wallace [19-20 June 1867]]. Maggs Bros. Autograph letters and historical documents. Catalogue no. 765. London. F3595

REVISION HISTORY: Transcribed and edited by John van Wyhe 11.2023. RN1


Introduction by John van Wyhe

It is remarkable to find a letter from Charles Darwin to Alfred Russel Wallace still unrecorded in 2023 after so many years of interest in these two figures and decades of searching for letters. Alas it is only briefly quoted in this 1947 auction catalogue. The letter sold for just over £1. What would it be worth today? The letter is an undated A.L.S. (autograph letter signed). But there are enough clues to work out when it was sent and what it means.

            Darwin was in London staying at the home of his brother Erasmus Alvey Darwin from 17-24 June 1867. (See Darwin's 'Journal' CUL-DAR158.1-76, Emma Darwin's Diary CUL-DAR242 and Correspondence vol. 15.) On the 18th Darwin called on Wallace but he was not home. Wallace wrote to Darwin on the 19th:

"I am very sorry I was out when you called yesterday. I had just gone to the Zool. Gardens, and I met Sir C. Lyell who told me you were in Town.
If you should have time to go to Bayswater I think you would be pleased to see the collections which I have displayed there in the form of an Exhibition (though the public will not go to see it.). If you can go with any friends I should like to meet you there, if you can appoint a time." (Correspondence vol. 15)

Wallace put on an exhibition of his private collection of butterflies and bird skins from the Malay Archipelago at the premises of his brother-in-law, the photographer Thomas Sims, at 76 Westbourne Grove, Bayswater, London. Wallace described this exceptional display in his autobiography:

"In order that my scientific friends might be able to see the chief treasures which I had brought home, I displayed a series of the rarest and most beautiful of my birds and butterflies in Mr. Sims's large photographic gallery in the same manner as I had found so effective with my New Guinea collections at Ternate. The entire series of my parrots, pigeons, and paradise birds, when laid out on long tables covered with white paper, formed a display of brilliant colours, strange forms, and exquisite texture that could hardly be surpassed; and when to these were added the most curious and beautiful among the warblers, flycatchers, drongos, starlings, gapers, ground thrushes, woodpeckers, barbets, cuckoos, trogons, kingfishers, hornbills, and pheasants, the general effect of the whole, and the impression it gave of the inexhaustible variety and beauty of nature in her richest treasure houses, was far superior to that of any collection of stuffed and mounted birds I have ever seen." (Wallace 1905, 1: 404-5).

The letter quoted in this 1947 auction catalogue was likely a reply to Wallace's letter of 19 June above. In this previously unrecorded letter, Darwin made an appointment to see Wallace but added that "I fear I shall not be able to get time to see your collection." The editors of the Correspondence suggested that Darwin and Wallace spoke on the 21st because there are notes for Descent in Darwin's papers that record information gathered from Darwin's meeting with Albert Günther at the British Museum on that day which also mention a suggestion from Wallace that the colours of tropical reef fish "are protective on account of corals but I doubt". (CUL-DAR82.B5-B6)

            Writing to Wallace on 24 June, Darwin noted "I very much enjoyed my long conversation with you; and today we return home & I to my horrid dull work correcting proof sheets. [of Variation]  | Believe me, my dear Wallace | yours very sincerely | Charles Darwin". He added a postscript: "I had arranged to go & see your collection on Saturday evening [i.e. 22 June], but my head suddenly failed after luncheon & I was forced to lie down all the rest of day." Wallace's son Herbert Spencer 'Bertie' Wallace was born on that day. Perhaps Darwin's letter to Wallace still survives somewhere in a private collection.


730 DARWIN (CHARLES, 1809-1882). Naturalist and Author

A.L.S. to "Dear Wallace." 1 3/4 pages, 8vo. London, N.D.

Making an appointment and continuing:—"I fear I shall not be able to get time to see your collection." Etc.

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Citation: John van Wyhe, ed. 2002-. The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online. (

File last updated 3 November, 2023