Twenty years ago we reopened Down House so the public could follow Charles Darwin’s footsteps through the place he called home for 40 years. The world-renowned scientist lived here with his wife Emma and their 10 children during the 19th century. While they were here, the ample grounds became Darwin’s living laboratory, giving him the space and inspiration to produce some of the most groundbreaking theories and publications on evolution.
But reopening Down House wasn’t as simple as unlocking the front door and welcoming visitors. Instead, it followed an intensive two-year programme of repair, conservation and re-presentation.
In this blog we reveal how we re-presented the historic estate after acquiring it in the mid-1990s – and how we’re still bringing Darwin’s home to life 20 years on.
How we recreated Darwin’s home
To begin with, we had an 1882 inventory of the house, paint analysis results and contemporary photographs of the principal rooms taken by Darwin’s fourth son, Leonard. These enabled us to identify the patterns of the wallpaper and carpets, the types of tableware, the pictures on the walls and the books on the shelves. Each of these, and much more, were painstakingly tracked down or reconstructed. We did this either by acquiring items original to the house or by commissioning the reweaving of carpets and block-printing of wallpaper which faithfully evoked the 19th-century originals. Many of the objects you see at Down House today have been generously lent to us by members of the Darwin family.
In the Dining Room, for instance, we used a photograph snapped by Leonard in 1876 to recreate the blue sprigged wallpaper, originally made in about 1852 by the designer Owen Jones. This more restrained design replaced the Darwins’ previous crimson flock-paper studded with gold stars, typical of the rich palette in vogue earlier in the 19th century. We commissioned a company to hand block-print Owen’s design using blocks that were expertly re-cut from the mid 19th-century originals. On the floor, a Turkish carpet dating to the 1880s was laid on top of a dark red felt surround, itself pinned down at the edges as it would have been at the time. Elsewhere in the room genuine articles have been reinstated, including the dining table where the family ate their meals and the French Empire elbow chair at the head of the table where Darwin sat.
The Old Study is now the most famous room at Down House, and for good reason: it was here that Darwin sat in that chair (yes, that very one!) to write the book that changed the world, On the Origin of Species in 1859. Due to his height (he was 6ft tall), Darwin decided to raise his chair with iron legs and wheels. These are said to have been taken from a bedstead. When conservators analysed the chair in 1997 they discovered that the fabric and carcass had particular stress directions which could only mean that Darwin pushed himself around the room as he worked.
Experimenting in the garden
While the landscape around the house had become run down, the structure had survived almost unscathed since Charles and Emma tended to it. This meant that the historic gardens could be restored to its 19th-century appearance with relative ease, enabling us to demonstrate a range of plant experiments that Darwin carried out.
Darwin’s many books, articles and letters provided a wealth of information. From this, it was possible for us to identify the plants that he and Emma both loved and grew, and which he used for study and observation. A number of photographs of the garden were also available, including those taken by Leonard in the 1870s, along with both memories and memoirs from the Darwins’ children.
The initial restoration of the gardens focused on clearing out what was considered inappropriate as well as completing repairs to walls and paths. Essential tree surgery was completed for safety reasons while some trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants were replanted.
As befitted Darwin’s work and close observation, nature conservation was an important element of the restoration project. There were 170 species of fungi recorded in the grounds, including rare grassland species, along with slow-worms, lizards, bats, badgers and foxes.
Darwin used his meadow as a productive hay meadow for observation and as an experimental plot. It was here in the Great House Meadow that he conducted his first field experiment, the study of earthworms. The meadow had been improved between Darwin’s occupancy and English Heritage’s custodianship. Now it’s managed as a wildflower meadow, cared for through a regime of cutting and sheep grazing which helps to remove nutrients, reduce grass cover and promote wildflowers.
While the kitchen garden didn’t look particularly promising when the Darwins first arrived at Down House, it soon provided plenty of fruit, vegetables and cut flowers for the house. It was also where Darwin carried out some of his experiments – on one occasion he planted more than 30 varieties of gooseberries. However, by 1998, it was mostly grass with a few overgrown box plants surviving in places.
Darwin had a series of glasshouses built for his experiments and study of plants, three sections of which are now presented with collections of hybrid orchids, carnivorous plants, and climbing plants amongst others.
As with the historic interiors of the house, research still continues into the garden and how the Darwins used it. We are also currently undertaking archaeology to locate the well, shower and water systems, along with the location of the pigeon house, all of which have many stories to tell and are still to be created.
Challenges in historical re-presentation
The first rule of any historical re-presentation project is to balance authenticity with a creative and accessible approach. Indeed, it’s worth bearing in mind that using historical photographs as evidence for what an interior once looked like has its limitations. They show a room how it looked at a particular point in time and from a particular angle; items of furniture can be moved out of the way, rearranged or ‘posed’ for a shot. So we must beware and read between the lines when it comes to treating historic images as ‘the truth’ and recognise the necessarily imaginative quality of our displays.
In actual fact, a lack of visual evidence for how a room once looked can sometimes give rise to a more creatively-interpreted space. In 2016, we opened an additional period room at Down: Charles and Emma’s bedroom and the attached dressing closet.
With no historic photographs, we needed to rely on wall paint analysis, inventory descriptions, letters, memoirs, examples of period design and, of course, a healthy dollop of imagination.
Visiting Down House today
Today visitors can walk in the footsteps of Darwin and his family at Down House and journey back to the 19th century to explore how it set the scene for ideas that changed the world. You can stand in the study where Darwin wrote On the Origin of Species and stroll through the gardens that inspired him.
Make sure you don’t miss the newly re-presented bedroom of Charles and Emma. The room features prints and novels that Darwin enjoyed, the kind of clothes they wore, and a soundscape to conjure the experience of Emma reading to her husband as he smoked a cigarette lying on the sofa.
Down House is open 10am to 6pm daily from 30 March to 30 September. For prices and full opening times visit our website.