Augustus Earle's “Divine Service” Paintings

John Woram

One of Augustus Earle's “Divine Service” paintings is sometimes said to be a scene from the second voyage of HMS Beagle as it made its way to Tierra del Fuego to return the three Fuegians to their native land and resume the survey of South America. This page takes a closer look at the painting's relation to the Beagle, its captain and, of course, Charles Darwin.

At the National Center for Science Education website, an unidentified writer states in “Setting the Record Straight,” (PDF, p. 18) that:

Janet Browne, in her exhaustive account of the voyage “… explains why the ‘last and greatest’ painting by Darwin's shipmate, August [sic, Augustus] Earle, Divine Service as It Is Usually Performed on Board a British Frigate at Sea (1837), ‘probably portrays the Beagle company, for it is a subtle panorama of the wide range of theological opinion that could be embraced by just such a set of travellers. The captain is seated in a flag-draped chair below decks intent on the Bible before him. Except for his grey sailor’s queue, he looks like FitzRoy. A woman close by, otherwise unusual on a ship, is probably Fuegia Basket in her royal bonnet. Another figure, who must be Darwin, sits to one side hardly looking at his book although following the words for all that, and the junior officers, the young midshipmen, and sailors show varying degrees of intentness’ [Browne, pp. 326-327]. Even if the painting is not of the Beagle, the artist surely composed the panorama drawing on memories of his life at sea with Darwin.

To which author James Taylor (The Voyage of the Beagle: Darwin's extraordinary adventure aboard FitzRoy's famous survey ship) comments (p. 133):

Earle's painting was … entitled Divine Service as it is Usually Performed on Board a British frigate at Sea (also exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1837). It has been suggested by some writers (including Dr Janet Browne [see above]) that this picture portrays Darwin, FitzRoy (as the captain reading the Bible) and Fuegia Basket.§ This is wishful thinking.

§ No other writers have been located (yet).

A close look at the painting is about all it takes to verify that this indeed is not HMS Beagle:

Divine Service as it is Usually Performed on Board a British Frigate at Sea (ca. 1820-1837)
Royal Museum, Greenwich

For still more proof, all that's needed is a quick look at an earlier work by the same artist:

Divine Service on Board a British Frigate, H. M. S. Hyperion 1820
National Library of Australia

Remove the bulleted list for a closer comparison.

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Note that here the ship is identified by name and the painting is dated 1820—more than ten years before Earle joined the Beagle. By changing the title from the specific HMS Hyperion to an un-named “British Frigate,” it is apparent that although the earlier painting does represent a scene on HMS Hyperion, Earle subsequently re-worked it to depict a typical shipboard service, not one held on a specific vessel.