Drawn to Nature: The Natural World, Visual Art & Written Word

When recruiting for a Personal Assistant in 2019, Pallant House Gallery director Simon Martin was inspired by one interviewee’s enthusiastic response to a set task of speaking about their favourite work of art. The chosen work was Eric Ravilious’ wood engraving Hoopoes from The Writings of Gilbert White, and it planted the seed of an idea for an exhibition: a display of the modern illustrators of Revd. Gilbert White’s much-loved book, Natural History of Selborne, which would celebrate White’s lasting influence on artists.

The exhibition was planned for the following year – 2020 – to coincide with the tercentenary of White’s birth, but the outbreak of the Covid pandemic meant that the Gallery had to be closed to the public only three days after the exhibition opened. Undeterred by this inauspicious start, Simon Martin resolved to ensure that those who wanted to experience the beauty of the exhibition’s historic prints and newly-commissioned works by contemporary artists and illustrators would still be able to do so. He wrote a book.

Simon Martin writes…

Since its publication in 1789, Gilbert White’s Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne has inspired generations of artists, writers and naturalists. From Thomas Bewick to Clare Leighton, many artists’ depictions of animals, birds and wildlife have illustrated White’s celebrated book, together creating a microcosm of natural history illustration. Writing a book about the artists who have illustrated White’s Natural History was not something I originally set out to do, but it has been an immensely rewarding outcome of circumstances created by the Covid pandemic.

Natural history and the art of poetry

I must confess that whilst it was visual art that started my journey into White’s Selborne, this point of entry led me into a study of nature: endlessly cross-referencing photographs of different species with artists’ depictions and White’s descriptions, reading and re-reading certain passages. It is easy to see why poets such as W.H. Auden, John Clare and Samuel Taylor Coleridge have admired the naturalist’s turn-of-phrase. White used vivid poetic analogies, observations such as ‘vast, swaggering, rock-like clouds’ and rooks making ‘a pleasing murmur…not unlike the cry of a pack of hounds in hollow echoing woods, or the rushing of the wind in tall trees, or the tumbling of the tide upon a pebbly shore’. Such descriptions were the perfect brief for artists and illustrators.

Memorably, the modernist writer Virginia Woolf declared how, ‘By some apparently unconscious device of the author has a door been left open, through which we hear distant sounds, a dog barking, cart-wheels creaking’. After searching out her beautiful and perceptive essay ‘White’s Selborne’, first published in the New Statesman in September 1939, I was surprised to learn that it had hardly been republished, except in her Collected Writings, and I was determined that if I was able to bring together many of the modern illustrators that this should also be included. Similarly, W.H. Auden’s Posthumous Letter to Gilbert White, first published in the New York Review in 1973, is included together with some of White’s own poems, as well as contemporary poems by Kathryn Bevis and Jo Bell. Fortunately, Sir David Attenborough kindly agreed to us reprinting his thoughtful 1977 essay in which he describes White as a man ‘in total harmony with his world’.

Focusing on 20th-century artists

Setting out to record a visual history of a book is not without its challenges, especially during a pandemic when libraries and archives are closed. Every week multiple parcels would arrive as I bought myself more and more books (partly as research and partly to cheer myself up in the months of lockdown), not just editions of White, but biographies and other books on nature illustrated by the artists I was studying. With so many editions, it became a question of where to draw the line, and I came to dread discovering yet another edition after it became too late to include it. Inevitably the primary focus was on 20th century artists, and particularly those working in wood-engraved illustration, a medium particularly suited to natural history book illustration. These included some of the greatest exponents of the medium: Eric Fitch Daglish, Gertrude Hermes, Eric Ravilious, Agnes Miller Parker, Clare Leighton, Christopher Wormell. Each of these artists looked back to the engravings of birds and animals by Thomas Bewick (1753-1828). Painter-printmaker John Piper had even gifted an 1875 edition of the Natural History with illustrations ascribed to Bewick as courtship gift to his wife Myfanwy.

Thomas Bewick: founding father of British wood-engraving

Thomas Bewick had apparently loved White’s Selborne. The first volume of his A History of British Birds, published in 1797, presented a list of nineteen birds which were ‘chiefly selected from Mr. White’s Natural History of Selborne, and are arranged nearly in the order of their appearing’. So, it was disappointing to discover during the course of my research that Bewick had never actually illustrated White’s book, but rather that several of his vignettes were later copied as headpieces and tailpieces for numerous Victorian editions of White’s book. Such is the stuff of detailed footnotes, but many hours were spent comparing images from Bewick’s History of British Birds and the images made after him by the likes of his pupils John Thompson, John Jackson and Charlton Nesbit. What is undeniable is that White and Bewick shared an affinity of approach: both were recorders of the minutiae of country life and precise observers of birds and animals, White in prose and Bewick in his carefully-crafted illustrations. Acknowledged as the founding father of British wood-engraving, Bewick’s birds and animals were an important influence in the 1930s and 40s on the printmakers in the book. Whilst I knew quite a bit about many of these artists, I was intrigued by an almost unrecorded artist called Claire Oldham, who had illustrated a particularly lovely edition in 1947. Through genealogical searches on ancestry websites and articles in 1940s issues of The Studio, I was able to ascertain her life-dates; and discovered that she was actually the niece of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of Sherlock Holmes, and had lived in the South Downs.

The challenges of editing (and Timothy the tortoise)

Editing also became an immense challenge: how to standardise spellings across several centuries; should we use capitals or lower case for Linnean names, even when what White used was technically incorrect today? Although the book inevitably features an array of hedgehogs, a kettle of swallows, a parliament of owls, a nest of mice, and a cry of hoopoes, each depiction has its own character and identity that stops it ever becoming repetitive, at least to my eyes. Inevitably there is a creep of tortoises as so many artists have been drawn to the humorous qualities of White’s pet Timothy, as indeed was the poet Sylvia Townsend Warner.

It was a source of great frustration that the cover illustration on her 1946 compendium The Portrait of a Tortoise, extracted from White’s letters, was not credited anywhere. However, thanks to helpful researchers at the University of Reading and Chatto and Windus archives I was able to positively confirm my identification of Irene Hawkins as the artist. In such a way many hours were spent on checking up the kinds of footnote arguments that few notice, but hopefully the end result is something that will stand the test of time and be a contribution to the impressive scholarship on Gilbert White and on British natural history illustration. It has been hugely rewarding to receive kind comments from the likes of Richard Mabey and Alexandra Harris, and – perhaps most of all – to hear that Sir David Attenborough wanted 36 copies to give to his family and friends!

Drawn to Nature brings together depictions of British wildlife from the 18th century to today, inspired by Gilbert White’s Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne. Find out more.

Distributed for Pallant Publications

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