Thomas Henry Huxley was a sketcher, amateur photographer, biologist, anthropologist, philosopher and scientific publicist. Appointed assistant surgeon and naturalist to HMS 'Rattlesnake' he was part of the mission to survey Australia's north-eastern waters and chart the Great Barrier Reef.
sketcher, amateur photographer, biologist, anthropologist, philosopher and scientific publicist, was born in Ealing, London, on 4 May 1825, the seventh child of Rachel and George Huxley, a schoolmaster. Huxley had little formal education. At sixteen he became a medical apprentice and subsequently held a scholarship at Charing Cross Hospital. After joining the naval medical service in December 1846 he was appointed assistant surgeon and naturalist to HMSRattlesnake on an expedition commissioned by the British Admiralty to survey Australia’s north-eastern waters and chart the Great Barrier Reef.
The survey reached Sydney in July 1847 and made Port Jackson its base depot for the next three years. It returned to England in October 1850. Throughout the survey Huxley carried out biological research on marine fauna, wrote his famous memoir on the anatomy and affinities of the medusae family which won him election to the Royal Society of London at the age of twenty-six, and accompanied the Rattlesnake on expeditions which took him from Van Diemen’s Land to the coast of Queensland and the Great Barrier Reef and along the shores of New Guinea and the Louisiade Archipelago. While the centre of his work lay in science the young Huxley emerged as a talented artist, filling his diary and notebooks with sketches of scenery, local inhabitants and depictions of bush life. He made important series of drawings of coastal New Guinea and of the Louisiade Archipelago natives who first aroused his interest in anthropology. He also took photographs by the calotype (salted paper) process.
Sketching variously in pencil, sepia, watercolour, pencil and wash, Huxley produced a lively graphic record of the Rattlesnake 's progress and of inland sorties, including several drawings of Edmund Kennedy 's exploring expedition which the survey accompanied as far as Rockingham Bay. Several are reproduced in J. Huxley (ed.), Thomas Henry Huxley’s Diary of the Voyage of H.M.S. Rattlesnake (London 1935). A study of native heads from the Louisiade Archipelago was reproduced as the frontispiece to volume two of Narrative of the Voyage of H.M.S. Rattlesnake (London 1852) by the expedition’s senior naturalist, John MacGillivray , a plate from Huxley’s watercolour Rockingham Bay, North Queensland faces page 85 in volume one (the original is in a private collection) and other illustrations are also after his drawings. His detailed scientific representations of oceanic hydrozoa, mollusca and crustacea, later published with his own papers, reveal his striking qualities as a scientific artist. Collections of Huxley’s sketches, watercolours, untitled cartoons and scientific illustrations are deposited in the Imperial College of Science and Technology (London), the Mitchell Library, and the National Library of Australia.
Untrained as an artist, Huxley inherited his facility from his father. 'I can hardly find a trace of my father in myself’, he once wrote, 'except an inborn faculty for drawing which unfortunately in my case has never been cultivated’. None the less, during a dynamic and distinguished career as an evolutionist, scientific educationalist and publicist in Britain, he continued to indulge his private taste for sketching on holiday excursions to Europe and he publicly promoted drawing as part of the curriculum (together with science, music and modelling) when he became chairman of London’s first School Board in 1870.
Huxley not only sketched the Australians he encountered on his journey; he carried one off as his bride. He married Henrietta Heathorn, whom he met and courted in Sydney, at London in 1855. They had eight children. Huxley died at Eastbourne on 29 June 1895. His contribution to Australian art was to provide a perceptive informal visual record of a major scientific expedition and to demonstrate, as a highly talented representative of a nineteenth-century tradition, the fertile link between science and art.