Darwin and the Royal Academy of Arts
The great thing about London is the history: it’s not something to read about in books, it’s there in every building and down every famous by-way. Walk Pall Mall, Regent Street or any one of the Monopoly board names and you will find history alive, breathing.
The Royal Academy of Arts is one such place. A short stroll from Piccadilly Circus, it is somewhat hidden behind an arched entranceway that straddles the opposing doors of the Geological and Linnaean Societies. Beyond the arch is a courtyard and, at its back, the building to which you are inevitably drawn: Burlington House – built in the 17th Century and now home to the Royal Academy of Arts. It’s a regal building befitting of its royal occupants. Large banners hung down its sides announcing an exhibition of Chinese art, but I had come to see a room, not art.
While the Linnaen Society now sits cheek by jowl with the academy, at the time Darwin was wrestling with the concept of natural selection that was not the case and the meetings of the Linnaean Society took place in the academy. On 1st July 1858, papers by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace were read to a meeting of the Linnaean Society in what is now known as the Reynolds Room.
It’s a long thin room, all cream and gold filigree. Paintings line both the long sides. I recognized one by Sir Winston Churchill. At one end, almost inconspicuous, is a plaque that notes the event that took place in that room. It was an event that would have far more impact on the world that any of the paintings in that room, or, for that matter, the whole building. But the patrons seemed blissfully unaware of the history that lay so naked before them. They strode down the polished wooden floor, stopping to stand pensively before the John Singer Sargent or the Churchill or, just occasionally, before the pictures painted by lesser names now largely consigned to history’s books. But nobody, not a single person, made any attempt to find a plaque on a wall. In an hour, no one but myself seemed to care that this was a room where great ideas – perhaps the greatest ever – were first liberated.
Part of that may well lie with The Royal Academy of Arts itself. Go to its website and you’ll be hard pressed to find any mention of Darwin. And Wallace doesn’t get a look in either. The plaque was put up as recently as 2001 and maybe the academy’s half-hearted and belated homage to Darwin stems from its own uncertainty? Someone told me that an historian at the Linnaean Society reckons the meeting did not take place in the Reynolds Room but in a room that is now occupied by the Men’s toilets. To be on the safe side, I visited them too. But let me just say for the record, that if I had to pick the place where I would like to imagine Darwin’s words being given flight, it would be the Reynolds Room and not some modern urinal.
I guess that’s what I like about history: it’s what you want to make it – but it helps if you can see it.