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Who was Gilbert White and why is he important?
[ Essay )
Ahead of our exhibition Drawn to Nature: Gilbert White and the Artists (5 August – 15 November 2020), we think it’s about time we take a closer look at the man himself and share some of our favourite things about him!
Now, where do we begin…
He was Britain's first naturalist
Before Darwin, certainly before Attenborough, there was Gilbert White (1720 – 1793) – an unassuming Parson with an unrelenting passion for, and curiosity of the natural world. His records of the wildlife, flora and fauna local to his humble Hampshire village became the basis for his ground-breaking book The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne (1789).
Oftentimes dismissed as an amateur ‘country-writer’, this was not at all the case. In fact, his contributions to the field of Natural History are impressive – not only did his observations establish the now widely-understood idea of a ‘food-chain’, he also identified and named numerous species including three kinds of leaf-warblers, the harvest-mouse and the noctule bat. Not bad for an ‘amateur’!
It is easy to imagine him, this very first of English nature writers, the most sober and modest, yet happiest of men.
Flora Thompson, Author
He is the indispensable precursor to those great Victorians who would transform our ideas about life on Earth, especially in the undergrowth – Lyell, Spencer, Huxley and Darwin.
Robert McCrum, 2017, The Guardian.
It wasn’t all science, science, science for Gilbert though – he cared deeply for the animals he observed, recognising that they have inner lives. His blend of evidence and empathy, science and emotion, is probably his most important and enduring legacy. He certainly made quite an impact on a young Charles Darwin who made a pilgrimage to Selborne before setting off on his famous Beagle voyage in 1831. Even the one and only Sir David Attenborough, national treasure, is a fan! He has described Gilbert as a man ‘in total harmony with his world.’
His book has never been out of print!
There aren’t many writers out there that can make this claim – certainly not after 230 years. Originally published way back in 1789, there have now been over 300 editions of The Natural History of Selborne. It is one of the most published books in the English language, giving Shakespeare and even The Bible a run for their money! Simply put, it’s impressive – very impressive.
…by some apparently unconscious device of the author’s has a door left open, through which we hear distant sounds, a dog barking, cart-wheels creaking.
Virginia Woolf on the writings of Gilbert White.
Gilbert’s writing style has been admired by poets and writers such as WH Auden, John Clare, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Virginia Woolf. The book was an immediate success, yet it still resonates all these years later. Tristan Sherwood, one of eleven contemporary printmakers and illustrators who have produced new works inspired by the book for our exhibition Drawn to Nature: Gilbert White and the Artists, hits the nail on the head…
I think this book touches on something very human which seems to remain unchanged, the sheer pleasure derived from observing the natural world, something which is often neglected with our modern lifestyles.
Tristan Sherwood, Artist
His observations inspired generations of artists
From historic artists such as Samuel Heironymous Grimm and Thomas Bewick, through to modern artists such as Eric Ravilious and contemporary artists and illustrators such as Jo Sweeting and Mark Hearld – Gilbert’s Natural History has inspired them all! In fact, the book is now almost as well-known for its various illustrations as its writing.
If Gilbert White was here today, the Attenborough of his time, he would mourn the predicted loss of the bumble bee, birds, the impact of climate change, loss of habitat, biodiversity, and would be in tears for what is now only beginning to dawn upon us. Gilbert White is more relevant now than ever…
Neil Bousfield, Artist
Swiss artist Samuel Heironymous Grimm was first up with his landscape engravings for the first edition. Iconic artists that followed in his footsteps include the founding father of British wood-engraving Thomas Bewick, modernist legends John Nash and Eric Ravilious, and printmakers such as Gertrude Hermes and Clare Oldham. Famously Bewick was drawn to the book’s birds, Nash took a liking to the toad, and Ravilious immortalised the bizarrely hilarious moose in the greenhouse! Each of the artists was inspired in their own unique way, and the same can be said today. For our latest exhibition Drawn to Nature: Gilbert White and the Artists we have commissioned eleven contemporary printmakers and illustrators to create new works inspired by the enduring appeal of Gilbert’s observations.
I originally became aware of the book through Ravilious’ illustrations of the text, who has been a long time inspiration to me and influence on my work. Through him I discovered other beautiful versions from other artists I love such as John Nash for example.
Alice Pattullo, Artist
He had a tortoise named Timothy
The real hero of this story of course is Timothy the tortoise! Originally acquired from a sailor in Chichester, Timothy the tortoise lived with Gilbert’s Aunt Snooke in the town of Ringmer, East Sussex. Following his aunt’s death, Gilbert inherited Timothy in 1780 and so began his time in the limelight! Certainly this little reptile would have been a somewhat unusual sight in 18th century rural England. Characterful observations of Timothy feature frequently both in the book, and Gilbert’s personal journals…
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
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 popular is Timothy, he has even inspired two books of his own – Sylvia Townsend Warner’s The Portrait of a Tortoise (1946) and Verlyn Klinkenborg’s book, Timothy; or, Notes of an Abject Reptile (2006). Spoiler Alert: according to the Natural History Museum it turns out, he was a she! Following Timothy’s one-way trip to tortoise heaven, she was identified as female. She was a Greek spur-thighed tortoise, and she is immortalised at the Natural History Museum where her shell now resides. You can even explore a 3D scan of Timothy’s shell here.
He basically invented the written kiss
All those x’s you have intentionally left at the end of text messages, or have mistakenly left at the end of more than one work email – well, you have Gilbert White to thank for that! That’s right – as obscure a fact as this may be, the Oxford English Dictionary credits him as the first to use the letter ‘x’ to represent a kiss in a letter written in 1763.
“I am with many a xxxxxxx and many a Pater noster and Ave Maria, Gil White.”
Even by modern day standards, that’s a lot of kisses Gilbert! Not everyone is convinced though – some researchers think it is more likely that the x’s have religious connotations, representing blessings rather than kisses for example. So was Gilbert just feeling particularly blessed that day? We may never know – you’ll have to make up your own mind on this one…