Gilbert White’s Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne

 Foldout frontispiece, North East view of Selborne from the Short Lythe, of Gilbert White's The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne, 1789, drawn by Samuel Hieronymus Grimm.

Foldout frontispiece, North East view of Selborne from the Short Lythe, of Gilbert White’s The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne, 1789, drawn by Samuel Hieronymus Grimm.

On July 18, 1720, pioneering English naturalist and ornithologist Gilbert White was born. He is best known for his work Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne, in which over the course of 20 years of his observations and two colleagues’ letters, he studied a wide range of flora and fauna seen around his hometown of Selborne, Hampshire. The book is a classic work of natural history, has been in print continuously since 1789, and is one of the most published books in the English language.

Gilbert White attended Oriel College, Oxford and was ordained in 1749. He further held several curacies in Hampshire and Wiltshire, including Selborne’s neighbouring parishes of Newton Valence and Farringdon, as well as Selborne itself on four separate occasions. In the early 1750s, White was appointed Junior Proctor at Oxford as well as Dean of Oriel. After the death of his father in 1758, Gilbert White moved back into the family home at The Wakes in Selborne.

The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne was first published in 1789 by Gilbert White’s brother Benjamin. It was incredibly successful being continuously in print since then, with nearly 300 editions up to 2007. The work was compiled from a mixture of his letters to other naturalists including Thomas Pennant and Daines Barrington. The book further included phenology observations made by White and William Markwick of the first appearances in the year of different animals and plants, and observations of natural history organized more or less systematically by species and group.

The main part of the book, the Natural History, is presented as a compilation of 44 letters nominally to Thomas Pennant, a leading British zoologist of the day, and 66 letters to Daines Barrington, an English barrister and Fellow of the Royal Society. In these letters, White details the natural history of the area around his family home at the vicarage of Selborne in Hampshire. Many letters were probably written especially for the book. While the first part of the book comprises a sequence of letters in a diary-like structure, the second part is a calendar, organized by phenological event around the year. The third part of the work contains observations, organised by animal or plant group and species, with a section on meteorology. The illustrations in the first edition were painted by the Swiss artist Samuel Hieronymus Grimm, engraved by William Angus, Peter Mazell, and others.

The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne became the fourth-most published book in the English language after the Bible, the works of Shakespeare, and John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. The White family house in Selborne, The Wakes, now contains the Gilbert White Museum.

References and Further Reading:

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