The quiet country parson whose genius inspired generations of artists

Gilbert White's pin-sharp notes on his local Hampshire countryside inspired William Wordsworth, John Piper and Virginia Woolf

Hollow Lane by the artist Eric Ravilious from the 1938 edition of The Natural History of Selborne 
Hollow Lane by the artist Eric Ravilious from the 1938 edition of The Natural History of Selborne  Credit: Private Collection

Around the time that Captain Cook and his ilk set sail for vast, spice-rich continents at the ends of the earth, or were traversing the Arctic Archipelago for the Northwest Passage, a middle-aged parson named Gilbert White set out to make a survey of his own: of the hedgerows and woodland of his Hampshire parish of Selborne. 

Every day from the mid-1760s until the week before his death in 1793, White recorded in his journals the infinitesimal changes that he observed on his rambles. He later transposed some of his findings to a correspondence that he struck up with two similarly curious naturalists, and, in 1789, published those letters as a book – The Natural History of Selborne – which has never been out of print since. Its 300-odd editions have been illustrated by the likes of Eric Ravilious, John Nash and John Piper. An exhibition of these illustrations, along with examples by several dozens of other artists, will open at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester, once lockdown lifts. 

The show, held in the tercentenary of White’s birth, salutes the book’s afterlife, which would have surprised its author. Late in life, White feared that, as tastes changed, his little book might sink into oblivion; that future generations might dismiss the unremarkable life of an old country parson. How wrong he was. Selborne has inspired untold poets, novelists, artists and fellow naturalists, everywhere and in every century. 

Bird Cup, by the contemporary artist Angie Lewin

Wordsworth read it as a youth; Coleridge annotated his copy of “this sweet delightful book”. Darwin, Ruskin, Thoreau and Hawthorne were fans, as were George Eliot, Carlyle and Auden. Writing to a friend in 1936, Ravilious said: “ ‘There are bustards on the wide downs near Brightelstone’. Isn’t that a beautiful statement?’ … I read [Selborne] every minute I can spare from engraving and other jobs.” 

Open any page and you see why. There is a gentle, yet pin-sharp attentiveness to White’s prose, combined with a reverence – even rapture – as his mind roams, retrieving small surprises everywhere he and his horse walk. He notes the “wild and desultory flight” of a “missile-thrush”, a sky of “vast, swaggering, rocklike clouds”. The murmur of rooks reminds him of “the rushing of the wind in tall trees, or the tumbling of the tide upon a pebbly shore”. The grasshopper lark “sings on the top of a twig, gaping and shivering with its wings”.

“It’s interesting, because he doesn’t set out to be a writer,” Gallery director Simon Martin tells me. “It’s just that in wanting to create a truthful account – to convey exactly what he has seen to someone else who hasn’t – he has to be very particular in his turn of phrase.”

Swift by Claire Oldham from the 1947 edition of The Natural History of Selborne  Credit: Estate of Claire Oldham

“The text is so visual and White’s vision is so particular,” says Mark Hearld, one of 11 contemporary artists Martin has commissioned to make new work in response to Selborne. “Each letter is a perfect distillation of a single moment. You can imagine White writing it every time.”

Virginia Woolf, too, observed how real White’s world feels when one is reading the books. “By some apparently unconscious device,” she wrote, “the author has a door left open, through which we hear distant sounds, a dog barking, cartwheels creaking.”

The Natural History of Selborne (Little Toller, £14);