23 January 2021
Welcome to the second instalment in our new series exploring a selection of historic house museums, giving insights into the lives of notable individuals from across the past 400 years. Today, we turn our attention to the 18th century, and the former home of renowned naturalist and writer Gilbert White.
The village of Selborne, in the heart of the Hampshire countryside, will forever be associated with Gilbert White. Author of the pioneering and influential 1789 book The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne, he was born in the village in 1720 and lived there for much of his life. For over sixty years, White resided at a house called The Wakes, which today is preserved as a museum dedicated to his life and legacy. In recent years the museum has undergone a major renovation, thanks to a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund and other donations.
“Gilbert White’s book, more than any other, has shaped our everyday view of the relations between humans and nature”
- Richard Mabey, naturalist and biographer of Gilbert White
White’s book has never been out of print, and is known throughout the world for its important contribution to the field of natural history. At a time when many naturalists undertook their research indoors, examining deceased specimens, White was innovative in making a study of living birds and mammals in their natural habitats. The landscape surrounding Selborne – which remains little changed since his day – was the setting for his observations.
“A man in total harmony with his world”
- Sir David Attenborough
Gilbert White's house Ludi Ling CC BY-SA 3.0
White’s ethos is much in evidence today at the museum, and his surviving notes and correspondence have been consulted in the restoration of the house and its beautiful and extensive gardens, which champion plants and gardening techniques of the 18th century. Although the house has undergone several architectural changes over time, family portraits, contemporary furnishings and a chair used by White at Oriel College, Oxford, all work together to evoke how it might have felt during the 18th century.
“It is, I find, in zoology as it is in botany: all nature is so full, that that district produces the greatest variety which is the most examined”
- Letter from Gilbert White to Thomas Pennant, Selborne, October 8, 1768
The original manuscript of The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne is preserved in the museum’s archive, and a digital copy can be read online via the link below.
Title page of 1813 edition of Gilbert White's The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne
The main text of the book takes the form of a series of letters written to White’s peers, such as the lawyer, antiquary and naturalist Daines Barrington, and the Welsh naturalist Thomas Pennant.
The museum is also home to the Oates Collection, which documents the lives of two later individuals also known for their explorations of the natural world. Frank Oates was a 19th century explorer, and his nephew Lawrence Oates took part in the ill-fated Terra Nova expedition to the South Pole from 1911-12. Galleries redesigned in 2012 to commemorate the centenary of Scott’s Antarctic Expedition and Lawrence Oates’s death tell the story of his early life, career, and the expedition – including its legacy in the sphere of climate change science.
The pioneering contributions to our understanding of the natural world showcased at Gilbert White’s House make it an important site for those with an interest in the history of science. In 2020, Gilbert White’s 300th birthday was celebrated through a special series of online events. While the house is currently closed due to COVID-19, you can catch up on the festival talks here:
Manuscript of The Natural History of Selborne by Rob Farrow CC BY-SA 2.0
Gilbert White's house by Ludi Ling CC BY-SA 3.0