Inside the Collection

Charles Darwin and Matthew Boulton

Portrait medallion featuring Matthew Boulton
Collection, Powerhouse Museum.

We celebrated two bicentenaries in 2009: Matthew Boulton’s death and Charles Darwin’s birth. Is there a link between these two illustrious Englishmen?

Darwin bust, gift of Thomas and Martha Lennard, 1921
Darwin bust, gift of Thomas and Martha Lennard, 1921. Collection, Powerhouse Museum.

The key is the Lunar Society of Birmingham, which counted amongst its members Matthew Boulton, James Watt, Josiah Wedgwood and Erasmus Darwin. The Lunar nickname was applied because these men met to discuss science, technology and industry when the moon was full – so they could see themselves home.

Now Erasmus Darwin, a medical doctor who wrote screeds of purple poetry and posed questions about evolution, was grandfather to Charles but died before he was born. So we have an obvious two degrees of separation through Erasmus Darwin and his son Robert.

There is also a link through Josiah Wedgwood, who owned a Boulton and Watt engine and collaborated with Boulton in manufacturing jewellery. He was Charles’s maternal grandfather, but he also died before Charles was born. Although he doesn’t help bring our two bicentenarians closer, this link is worth noting as inheriting money from him (on his own account and through his wife, who was a cousin) allowed Darwin the leisure to observe, experiment and theorise.

Portrait medallion, Josiah Wedgwood
Collection, Powerhouse Museum.

Portrait medallion, Josiah Wedgwood

Now Josiah’s wife Sarah lived to the age of 81 – and she knew Charles well. As she also knew Boulton, she is the link that gives us just one degree of separation.

It seems that two major anniversaries in one year are not enough for the Lunar Society. Visiting Melbourne recently, I discovered a delightful little exhibition at the National Galley of Victoria marking the 250th anniversary of Josiah Wedgwood’s pottery business. It’s worth visiting just to see the Portland vase, versions of which were owned by both Erasmus and Charles Darwin.

If you are a Wedgwood fan, you can also see some pieces on display in Powerhouse exhibitions: Boulton and Watt (behind the engine), Experimentations (‘chemical attractions’ section) and Inspired! Design across time.

4 responses to “Charles Darwin and Matthew Boulton

  • How about this – Thomas Hope, patron, designer and collector in Regency England (see the Museum’s prized Egyptian revival settee and matching pair of armchairs on display in the Inspired! exhibition) knew Matthew Boulton. In fact, Boulton sent one of his craftsmen to Hope (allegedly Boulton’s illegitimate son), John Phillp, to make drawings of furniture etc. in Hope’s Duchess Street Mansion and there is a letter from Hope to Boulton in Birmigham dated to 1805. As far as I know, there isn’t a connection to Darwin through Hope, but there is one between Hope and Wedgewood via Neo-Classicism and Hope’s own collection.

  • Thank you. I was unaware of this link between the Darwin and Boulton families.

    Although I do not have any Latin, I think that the spelling of MATTHEAVS BOVLTON may be some sort of latin reference. I wonder if you could tell me: Is that so? If not that, what? Why was this spelling of his name used in this case, and generally on medallions or inscriptions of the period?

    Another question: Your catalogue calls this a medal. I call it a medallion. How do you define the difference if any between medal and medallion for cataloguing?

  • In answer to your questions Bob; it was long the convention to use Latin on medals / medallions and also coins. Even today, Britain’s coins use Latin abbreviations for their inscriptions D.G. (Dei Gratia) etc. (etc. to continue the convenient use of Latin!). Latin added a formality and association with class and learning to a medal that no doubt was seen as granting prestige and cachet.

    Medal and medallion are synonymous terms although I often think the latter avoids confusion with military medals. If used however, the term medallion is best (and subjectively) reserved for large medals. Just to add more fuel to the fire there is also the term medalet which is defined by the doyen of Australian medals, Leslie Carlisle, as suited to medals measuring 32mm or less. Seems there is an element of fashion here for Carlisle’s ‘Australian commemorative medals and medalets from 1788′ (Sydney 1983) has now been superseded by his expanded version called ‘Australian Historical medals 1788-1988’ (Sydney 2008). Looks like ‘medal’ will do!

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