A page from Charles Darwin’s draft, working manuscript for On the Origin of Species… sold for a record £400,000 by Sotheby’s.

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Together with a copy of the first edition of the book that belonged to the brother of one of Darwin’s shipmates on HMS Beagle, they were among a small group of lots with a family provenance offered as part of a Sotheby’s (25/20/12.9% buyer’s premium) sale of July 9-10.

Part of the estate of the late Mrs AP Keynes, they were items that had initially passed to Darwin’s daughter, Henrietta (‘Etty’) Litchfield, and then on to her niece, Margaret Keynes, née Darwin, who died in 1974.

Darwin carefully preserved his notebooks and other early work on evolution, but had no further use for his much-altered draft, working manuscripts once a fair and corrected copy had been produced.

Though some 50 or so leaves have survived, many were used as scrap paper by family members, were given away or, in later years, were presented by the family to Cambridge University Library, where many of his papers now reside.

The leaf illustrated here, part of the conclusion to his chapter on species, varieties and hybridism, represents a key point in his argument for natural selection.

Later erased but still largely legible notes on the reverse of this leaf, which sold for £400,000, have been identified as notes in the hand of his son George, who later went on to hold a chair in astronomy at Cambridge.

A second, shorter leaf that deals with residual gills in vertebrates – and does actually include the words “natural selection” – was sold at £220,000.

Congenial company

Bid to £170,000 was an 1859 first of the great work that had belonged to Philip Hamond, whose brother Robert had been a midshipman on the Beagle. He was someone whom the young Darwin found congenial company, and a fellow equally drawn to “admiring the Spanish ladies” while they were ashore in Buenos Aires.

A single leaf of the manuscript for the final work in Darwin’s main series of evolutionary writings, The Expressions of the Emotions in Man and Animals of 1872 – a work initially intended to be a single chapter in The Descent of Man – sold at £160,000.

No records of any other leaf from Darwin’s manuscript for that work appearing at auction exist, but here there were two on offer.

Running to only six lines, the second was shorter, but features a key section in which Darwin is writing directly about evolutionary processes. It too was bid to a much higher than expected sum – in this instance £110,000.