The watercolour can be attributed to the Beagle's first shipboard artist, Augustus Earle (1793-1838), on stylistic grounds. A number of genre scenes and studies of figures by Earle made on board ship and during his travels in Brazil and Australia survive in the collections of the National Library of Australia, the National Gallery of Australia and the State Library of New South Wales. There are many elements in these pieces that are strikingly similar to the present watercolour: the depiction of faces (especially those of the caricatured menials, but also for example, the thin sailor on the far left), structural composition and the careful placement of figures in a group (Earle often chooses to depict figures from the back or side), his clumsy depiction of human feet, the palette, his use of light washes. However only one watercolour produced by Earle on the Beagle has been identified; they presumably passed to FitzRoy, his employer, who had some engraved to illustrate his Narrative of the surveying voyages of His Majesty's Ships Adventure and Beagle (1839). One of these engravings after Earle, ‘Crossing the Line’, is again strikingly similar to the present watercolour and depicts another comic shipboard scene in caricature style. On the basis of style alone there can be little doubt that this watercolour is the work of Earle, which means this scene can only depict the Beagle; a connection that is confirmed by compelling circumstantial detail.
Earle was employed by Fitzroy in October 1831, before the Beagle left England, and soon befriended the other supernumerary on board, Charles Darwin. His health was not good, however, and he had to leave the ship and was replaced by Conrad Martens in August 1833. It is often stated that Earle left the ship in August 1832 but it has been shown that he remained on board until at least October (see J. Hackforth-Jones, Augustus Earle: Travel Artist (1980), p.12). Earle’s departure from the Beagle, together with the chronology established by surviving correspondence and the presence of fossils amongst the specimens on the quarterdeck, allow the watercolour to be dated with a fair degree of confidence to around 24 September 1832. The ship anchored in the harbour of Bahía Blanca, some 400 miles south of Buenos Aires in Patagonia, from 6 September to 19 October, and during this time Fitzroy and Darwin took a launch to Punta Alta, some 10 miles distant, to investigate the cliffs they had observed on arrival. Here they discovered an extraordinary diversity of fossils of extinct mammals which greatly excited Darwin, as FitzRoy recalled in his Narrative:
“My friend’s [Darwin’s] attention was soon attracted to some low cliffs ... where he found some of those huge fossil bones, described in his work; and notwithstanding our smiles at the cargoes of apparent rubbish which he frequently brought on board, he and his servant used their pick-axes in earnest, and brought away what have since proved to be most interesting and valuable remains of extinct animals…” (Narrative, Vol. 2, pp 106-7)
FitzRoy further describes how animals were hunted as specimens, and that “shoals of fish were caught by our men ... and as they were chiefly unknown to naturalists, Mr. Earle made careful drawings of them, and Mr. Darwin preserved many in spirits” (Narrative, Vol. 2, p.108). These animals and fish are also found in the watercolour, but it is the much more unusual presence of fossils, which were brought on board on 24 September, that tie the image to Bahía Blanca. Their importance to Darwin's thinking lay in the fact that they were the bones of creatures evidently similar to those then living in the region, and different from mammalian fossils found in Europe; they were therefore evidence of descent with modification going on independently on different continents. The watercolour includes captions that reveal Earle’s clear understanding of how these specimens played into ongoing discussions of geological time – an understanding that came, no doubt, from conversation with Darwin and FitzRoy. The date on the ‘Tusk’ is one year after the famous ‘date’ of the Creation of 4004 B.C. calculated by Archbishop Ussher (1581–1656), whilst ‘Anti-Diluvian’ is an intentional pun, as the fossils were not only antediluvian, before the Deluge, but also evidence against the Deluge.
Many details found in the watercolour echo known features of the Beagle voyage, and in turn the watercolour is an important new witness to one of the most renowned scientific voyages in history. For example, whilst FitzRoy’s geological interests are well attested – it was FitzRoy who presented Darwin with his copy of the first volume of Lyell’s Principles of Geology, which was to prove so influential to Darwin’s incipient evolutionary insights – the present watercolour reveals how deeply this interest pervaded activities on the Beagle. There are smaller details, too: the officer complaining that “there is no such thing as walking the deck for all these cursed specimens” can be identified confidently as First Lieutenant John Clements Wickham; Henrietta Darwin recalled her father describing how Wickham would mutter darkly that "If I had my way, all your d--d mess would be chucked overboard, & you after it old Flycatcher” (R. Keynes, Fossils, Finches, and Fuegians (2003), p.105). Further research would no doubt shed light on other details in the watercolour, whilst other features– the recurrent cabbage motif and the watercolour’s curious title, for example – are presumably ship-board in-jokes that are probably beyond recovery.
Sotheby's would like to thank Elizabeth Ellis, emeritus curator of the State Library of New South Wales, for her assistance in cataloguing this lot.
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