Posted by: Rob Viens | May 12, 2012

The Art of the Beagle – Augustus Earle: Part II

When Robert FitzRoy was outfitting the Beagle for its trip to South America he decided to bring along some non-traditional passengers.  Darwin, of course, was the most famous of these guests.  He also insisted on returning 3 Fuegian natives – that had been taken from Tierra del Fuego on the Beagle‘s first voyage – back to their home in South America (another story, for sure).

But FitzRoy also recognized the importance  of bringing along an artist to document the trip. In fact, he felt this was so important that he paid for the artist out of his own pocket. He then convinced the Admiralty to cover the artist’s daily rations – something they did not do for Darwin. (One biography colorfully referred to Earle’s position on the Beagle as ” artist supernumerary with victuals”.) It says a lot about FitzRoy, that he felt so strongly about bringing one of the periods best travel artists on the voyage.

Divine Service on board a British Frigate, HMS Hyperion

Divine Service on board a British Frigate

How FitzRoy met Earle is unclear – I would guess that it was through a friend who had employed Earle to do a portrait.  I’m sure his reputation as a travel painter for the past 15 years helped in the selection, but no matter the reason, by the end of 1831, Augustus Earle set sail from Plymouth on his way to South America.

Raza (Or Light House) Island With A Distant View Of The Entrance Of Rio De Janeiro Harbour

Lighthouse Island

Darwin does not mention Earle much until the Beagle arrived in Rio.  However, once in Rio, Earle’s former experience living in the city made him the go-to-guy for getting around. In early April Darwin notes:

“Earl makes an excellent guide, as he formerly lived some years in the neighbourhood: it is calamitous how short & uncertain life is in these countries: to Earls enquiries about the number of young men whom he left in health & prosperity, the most frequent answer is he is dead & gone.” (April 5)

From that time forward it appears that Augustus and Charles became friends (possibly through mutual illness) and seemed to enjoy the time they spent together in Rio (though Darwin later referred to Earle as ” licentious”).

Views Near Rio de Janeiro

View Near Rio

View Near Rio

In August (his namesake month), Earle left the Beagle due to his declining health.  In fact, if seems that his poor health kept him from doing much painting on the trip at all.  Much of the artwork Earle produced of Brazil comes from the time he lived there in the early 1820’s.

The Bats of the Brazils

Bats of the Brazils

In 1833 Earle returned to London, though it seems that he did not produce much new work. (If he was suffering from arthritis, I suspect it may have become more difficult for him to paint). He passed away of “asthma and dibility” at the young age of 45 in 1838, less than 2 years after the Beagle returned to England.

I suppose Augustus is a minor character in Darwin’s story, but he is an important one in documenting the world in a time before photographs. It is Earle’s pictures (along with those painted by artist Conrad Martens later in the voyage) that adorn the pages of Voyage of the Beagle – providing visuals to compliment Darwin’s poetic descriptions of the natural wonders of South America. Frankly, I like his work and how it provides a window into the wide, unexplored world of the early 1800’s. (RJV)

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Responses

  1. […] Wigwams in Tierra del Fuego, by Augustus Earle (for more on Augustus Earle see The Art of the Beagle: Part I and Part II) […]

  2. […] (For more on the Beagle’s first artist see The Art of the Beagle: Augustus Earle Part I and Part II).  Unfortunately Earle suffered from what appeared to be debilitating arthritis and had been laid […]


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