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Timothy the tortoise: man's best friend
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Inspiring at least two books of his own, the break out star of Gilbert White’s seminal book The Natural History of Selborne was a scaly, yet lovable little reptile by the name of Timothy.
Having delighted generations of readers for over 200 years, let’s take a closer look at the story behind the popular, historic pet, Timothy the tortoise.
Historically there have been lots of well-known pets – the art collector Peggy Guggenheim basically had a herd of Lhasa Apso dogs, Picasso had his sausage dog, Salvador Dali his ocelot, and perhaps more unusually, the French Romantic writer Gérard de Nerval had his pet lobster, Thibault. Make no mistake, Thibault was not confined to an aquarium, oh no – Thibault was walked on a silken leash around the gardens of Paris! Unsurprisingly, he was a big influence on the Surrealists (Gérard that is, not Thibault; although maybe Thibault too – lobster telephone anyone?). So for most of us, our pet companions are of the furry variety – dogs of course, the original man’s best friend, but also cats, rabbits, etc – but for author and naturalist Gilbert White, his lifelong companion was a humble tortoise called Timothy. In the 18th century, when White acquired Timothy, this modestly-sized little reptile would have been the height of exotic. No doubt Timothy’s arrival in the quiet Hampshire village of Selborne set tongues wagging.
Now, Timothy wasn’t exactly Lassie OK; he wasn’t Gilbert’s trusty sidekick, he was more of a lone ranger – played it cool and aloof, and slept for near enough half the year, but Timothy’s antics featured throughout White’s seminal book The Natural History of Selborne, and his star turn stole the show, capturing the hearts and imaginations of not just the readers, but fellow writers, artists and illustrators. If Natural History were a movie, Timothy would be the break out star – the actor you’d never heard of that went on to steal the limelight and win an Oscar! Is anyone else now questioning why there hasn’t been a film of Gilbert White’s life made?
It’s only fitting then that Timothy has been immortalised in art – from the very first illustrations by Swiss artist Samuel Hieronymous Grimm in 1789, to today’s illustrations, on display in our current exhibition Drawn to Nature: Gilbert White and the Artists, by contemporary artists Alice Pattullo, Emily Sutton, and Christopher Brown…
This hot weather makes the tortoise so alert that he traverses all the garden by six o’clock in the morning. When the sun grows very powerful he retires under a garden-mat, or the shelter of some cabbage; not loving to be about in vehement heat. In such weather, he eats greedily.
Gilbert White, June 16 1782
So where did Timothy come from? How did a rare and exotic Greek spur-thighed tortoise end up in the back garden of a Hampshire pastor in the 1700s? Well, Timothy’s immigration (or possible kidnapping; tortoise-napping?) to the UK began, of all places, right here in Chichester. After being acquired from a sailor at the harbour, Timothy lived with Gilbert’s Aunt Snooke in the town of Ringmer, East Sussex, until her death. Gilbert inherited the tortoise in 1780 and lived with him for the rest of his life – in fact, Timothy went on to out-live his owner. As a naturalist, Gilbert’s interests were not confined to the biological and the purely scientific, but extended to the inner lives of the animals he observed, including his new pet tortoise. It’s this that made Gilbert’s observations of Timothy, and the other wildlife, so irresistibly characterful. Charming observations of Timothy are strewn throughout Natural History, as well as Gilbert’s personal journals and before you know it, as a reader, you’ve been sucked right in!
The tortoise took his usual ramble, & could not be confined within the limits of the garden. His pursuits, which seem to be of the amorous kind, transport him beyond the bounds of his usual gravity at this season. He was missing for some days, but found at last near the upper malt-house.
Gilbert White, June 5 1787
You can read all about Timothy and catch up on his various Selborne adventures in the book The Natural History of Selborne which, unbelievably, has never been out of print in all these years. Not one to be limited to a supporting role however, Timothy has struck out on his own and has inspired not one, but another two books – Sylvia Townsend Warner’s The Portrait of a Tortoise (1946) and Verlyn Klinkenborg’s book, Timothy; or, Notes of an Abject Reptile (2006). Clearly we’re not the only ones to have been captivated by this scaly little critter.
In the interests of full disclosure, we should probably also tell you that if this whole time you’ve been working off the assumption that Timothy is a boy tortoise, you’re dead wrong. Gilbert White may very well have been Britain’s first naturalist, and there are a ton of strings to his bow, but it turns out that gendering tortoises was not his strong point. Mind you, you can’t be good at everything. According to the Natural History Museum, after her death, Timothy was identified as having been a girl tortoise all along.
It is testament to the popularity of Timothy among the book’s readers that her shell now resides in the collection of the Natural History Museum, forever remembered for her contribution to British natural history. Charles Darwin was a fan of the book you know – it would be an enormous stretch to say that Gilbert and Timothy inspired the theory of evolution, but the book’s contribution to the field shouldn’t be underestimated either.
You can view a 3D virtual scan of Timothy’s shell here.
Read more about Gilbert White in our recent blog, Who was Gilbert White, and why is he important?.
Our exhibition, Drawn to Nature: Gilbert White and the Artists, ran until 15 November 2020.