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Illustrating the Natural History of Selborne

Illustrating the Natural History of Selborne

Joshua Godfrey , our Learning & Participation Manager and Curator of our first temporary exhibition in the new Discovery Room talks about Illustrating the Natural History of Selborne. 

The beauty of Gilbert White’s writing and conversational style of his book, The Natural History & Antiquities of Selborne makes it a joy for all to read. As you leaf through its pages, you can pick out passage after passage of descriptive writing that paints a picture in your head of the scene he describes or the animal he mentions. It is easy to understand why so many artists have illustrated the book, and we feel it is important to highlight the illustrators contribution to this well-loved piece of writing.

Illustrating the Natural history of Selborne

From the 1st edition to the present, illustrations commonly appear, providing factual images of birds and reptiles that Gilbert describes or in some cases the artist has taken inspiration from his words and drawn the scene in a stylistic way. The first to illustrate the book was Swiss artist Samuel Hieronymus Grimm. Gilbert had seen his work and knew he was in England while the book was coming together. His good friend John Mulso was unsure that Grimm’s work would add to the book, writing to Gilbert and saying:

“I do not mean by ye close of ye last Sentence as Slur on your intention of employing the Art of mr Grim, or any other more accomplished Designer; I wish he may add to ye Pleasure of the World, as much as he will gratify my partiality.”

Gilbert did not take on John’s advice, employing Grimm to illustrate the book. Grimm visited Selborne for a total of 28 days, during in which time he created 12 watercolours to feature in the book. Gilbert observed his artist’s method:

“He first of all sketches his scapes with a lead-pencil… then he gives a charming shading… and last he throws a light tinge of water-colours over the whole.”

Since Grimm, other well-known artists have illustrated the book, including the well known wood engraver, Eric Ravilious. In 1937 he produced a series of wood engravings, that featured in a two volume edition of the book. Whereas previous artists provided accurate images of flora and fauna to support the text, Ravilious depicted scenes based on White’s writings, some being jovial and others capturing a sense of humour. Another artist to illustrate the book in a similar fashion was John Nash.

John Nash first illustrated the Natural History of Selborne in 1951 and again in 1972. The difference between the two was simple, the 2nd edition had colour in the images. The museum holds in its collection the original pen and ink sketches for the 1951 edition, published by Letterman Press and also has a set of coloured proofs for the 1972 edition, published by the Limited-Edition Club.

Illustating the natural history of selborne


The first edition was done on a very tight budget, which meant cheap paper was used and Nash’s images were printed much smaller than his originals. He produced a total of eleven whole-page line drawings, nineteen-line drawings in the text and a frontispiece. The illustrations show scenes from Selborne mentioned in the writing and depicts scenes described by Gilbert.

“I managed to get a sight of the female moose belonging to the Duke of Richmond, at Goodwood; but was greatly disappointed, when I arrived at the spot, to find that it died, after having appeared in a languishing way for some time, on the morning before. However, understanding that it was not stripped, I proceeded to examine this rare quadruped: I found it in an old green-house, slung under the belly and chin by ropes, and in a standing posture; but, though it had been dead for so short a time, it was in so putrid a state that the stench was hardly supportable.”


From letter XXIX to Thomas Pennant from Gilbert White

A wonderful example of this, is Nash’s illustration titled The Dead Moose, which depicts Gilbert’s encounter as mentioned in the quote above. Nash has Gilbert swiftly walking away from the greenhouse with a handkerchief to his mouth, supporting the narrative in the text.

Beyond the illustrator’s, the exhibition also touches on the printing process itself. Within Nash’s proofs there were pages annotated with notes o the printer. Colour was key for the 1972 edition. With no financial restraints, this edition was printed on expensive Japanese paper and the images reproduced in the book at almost the same size as Nash’s originals. When writing to the printer and friends who supported him, Nash said:

“The two original colour schemes have been stretched a good deal to comply with the needs and I think the actual colours will have to be modified in the printing. You see we have nothing approaching a Red or a Pink and this lets us down over the damned Hoopoes.”

Through examining the process of printing, you begin to appreciate the level of work required in producing the images to such a high quality.

We are thrilled to be able to display several of Nash’s original works for the first time. Purchasing the originals and more recently the coloured proofs was supported by the Art fund and the V&A grant fund. Having them all in one place allows you to appreciate the level of detail and process, as well as appreciate White’s writing through the eyes and imagination of the artists.


Illustrating the Natural History of Selborne will run until the 31st July 2018 and is included in the general admission to the house and gardens.