Charles Darwin lived with his wife, children and servants in Down House, a Georgian manor 15 miles south of London in the Kent countryside, for 40 years—from 1842 to 1882. Like all close-knit families, they did not just live in this house, they created a remarkable home here. Emma and Charles adapted Down House and the 20 or so acres of its grounds, extending the building and gardens continually, so they could nurture a large family and a community within it, built on routines, mutual respect, adaptation, tolerance, affection and good humor.
In his book Art Matters, the art theorist Peter de Bolla claims that we must attend to what paintings “know,” what knowledge they contain in themselves that is separate from what their makers might have known; coming back to visit Darwin’s house last fall, in rich autumnal sunshine, I wondered what Down House might know, not just about Darwin and his family but about kinship and community.
Once Emma died, in 1896, 14 years after her husband, the house was rented out to tenants and spent some time as a girls’ school, but from the late 1920s various attempts were made to preserve it as a monument to Darwin. An institution called English Heritage acquired Down House in 1996 and restored it; it is open to visitors year-round and now has a small museum, a shop and a parking lot. Though it was the home of a wealthy country squire, it was always a family house, not at all showy, and its curators have kept it that way. There’s a large hallway with cupboards built to store tennis rackets and boots and old manuscripts. Off it branch high-ceilinged family rooms: a billiards room, Darwin’s study, a drawing room, a dining room. Upstairs is a school room and bedrooms and, on the third floor, servants’ quarters. The high windows have solid-panel shutters that fold back into their frames, so the boundary between inside and outside seems permeable; trees and green are visible everywhere through glass; light pours in.A few years after Darwin had established a life here and become the father of the first four of his ten children, he wrote to his friend Robert FitzRoy, captain of the research vessel HMS Beagle, with delight: “My life goes on like Clockwork, and I am fixed on the spot where I shall end it.” It was a kind of private joke, one that FitzRoy probably didn’t get. Darwin’s head was full of barnacles at the time—he was trying to map and understand the entire group and would continue for another eight years, so when he wrote “I am fixed on the spot where I shall end it,” he was thinking of himself as a barnacle that had glued itself to a rock now that its free-swimming days were over.