Artists & Illustrators|Summer 2020
Nature has long been a source of creative stimulation for British artists and writers. The close observation of animals, birds and insects that can be found close to home in hedgerows and woodlands has been a vital part of our artistic expression. One of the earliest accounts of natural history was made in the late 18th century by a middle-aged country parson at the time of extraordinary world events, including the French Revolution and the American Wars of Independence. It sounds so unlikely and yet it was to be one of the most enduring and influential records of natural life, inspiring numerous artists over the intervening years.
It was put together by the Reverend Gilbert White, who was born in 1720 and lived in the Hampshire village of Selborne, on the edge of the South Downs. White recorded his observations about the nature on his doorstep in a series of letters first published in 1789 as The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne. The book was an immediate success and has never been out of print since: with more than 300 editions, it is supposedly the fourth most-published text in English, after the Bible, the works of Shakespeare and John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress.
It made a deep impression on Charles Darwin and gained White the epithet of “the first ecologist” or, in the words of Sir David Attenborough, a man “in total harmony with his world”. White was utterly fascinated by the habits of the creatures that he was able to observe in his locality, from the mating habits of frogs to the migration of swallows and swifts. But he also took an interest in accounts of more exotic creatures such as the jackdaws nesting at Stonehenge and the movements of Timothy the tortoise, whom he inherited from his Aunt Snooke.
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