Seeing Corals with the Eye of Reason

A rediscovered painting celebrates Charles Darwin’s view of life.

Truth to tell, not all of this raced through my mind as I beheld Ernest Griset’s painting of an atoll. But I was well acquainted with Darwin’s theory of coral reefs, and perhaps more important, I knew about his close association with John Lubbock, who commissioned the artwork. Lubbock’s father (also named John) was the major landowner in the Kent countryside. The family’s huge estate, High Elms, with its twenty-two room mansion, was about a mile and a half from Down House, Darwin’s home. Indeed, Darwin’s property was a small island in the holdings of Lubbock.

From the age of eight, the younger John was mentored by Darwin, twenty-five years his senior. As he matured, Lubbock took up many of his teacher’s interests, including classification of barnacles, the relationship between insects and f lowers, paleontology, and human prehistory. Later an inveterate collector of prehistoric stone tools, ethnographic artifacts, and insect colonies, young Lubbock must have filled his indulgent father’s mansion with birds’ nests, fossils, and flasks of pond water. So fascinated was the son by tales of the South Seas that he built an artificial grotto decorated with corals and shells near the big house.

Darwin frequently walked the footpath between his home and High Elms, where he may have offered advice during the planning of Griset’s paintings or viewed and discussed each one as it was completed. However, neither Darwin nor Lubbock ever used them to illustrate their books. And by the mid-twentieth century, the paintings had been removed by the family from High Elms. That was fortunate, because in August 1967 the great mansion burned down (oddly, on what the grateful British populace had dubbed “St. Lubbock’s Day,” the secular bank holiday Lubbock instituted). The estate grounds are now a public park and nature reserve.

When Lubbock commissioned the triptych of the coral atoll, Darwin was preparing to reissue a revised and updated edition of The Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs, three decades after its initial publication. It seems plausible that Lubbock planned the painting as a surprise for Darwin, to commemorate that significant milestone. In Griset’s brushstrokes, Darwin’s tropical atoll appears isolated beneath a vast sky— jewel-like, pristine, and mysterious. The sailing ship is barely sketched in, but it is unmistakably a classic brig-sloop of the Cherokee class [see painting detail above]. It even has a stripe along the hull and gun ports along the side, as the Beagle did.

The painting remains sequestered against English winters in the stone-brick storeroom at the Priory. Within its timeless world, the atoll awaits the arrival of the iconic sailing ship on the horizon, bearing a young man who seeks to elucidate its mysteries. While studying corals, he will experience serendipity on a grand scale. By casting his “eye of reason” on natural phenomena that, operating over immense periods of time, create “forms most beautiful and most wonderful,” he will change forever our view of life.

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