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The Struggle for Existence reflects Darwin’s vision of the ruthless conflict among species which led to ‘natural selection’, or ‘the survival of the fittest’. Audubon’s scenes of violent action in the bird world, and the brutal, melancholy animal paintings of Sir Edwin Landseer – such as his monumental scene of dying stags, Morning (1853) – were ones Darwin knew, and played into his own vision of life in the wild. Gradually, Darwin’s new emphasis on the marvellous interplay between all living things came to dominate artists’ approaches to nature. Bruno Liljefors and Abbott Thayer were both fascinated by his understanding of the complex ecology of the natural world – for example, how colour and pattern help to disguise and protect animals. But what Darwin called ‘the war of nature’ also played itself out in the human arena. In many Victorian photographs and prints, and in paintings like Hubert von Herkomer’s On Strike (1891), man too – particularly the ‘weak members’ of modern society – had to face the competitive rigours of their environment.

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William Dyce, Pegwell Bay, Kent - A Recollection of October 5th, 1858 (detail), Tate, London

Edwin Landseer, Morning, ca.1853 (detail), Philadelphia Museum of Art

Ernest Griset, Mammoth Hunters, ca.1869-71 (detail), Bromley Museum Service

Ernest Griset, Mammoth Hunters, ca.1869-71 (detail), Bromley Museum Service