Gilbert White display installed at Winchester Cathedral to celebrate his life and work as a pioneering naturalist

May 20, 2021

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From the 24th May, a display that celebrates Gilbert White, his life and work as a natural history pioneer, gardener, writer and clergyman will be set up in the North Presbytery Aisle of Winchester Cathedral.

The five panelled display, which is available to the public until September, takes the visitor through the life of Gilbert White, his love for nature and his works. The illustrations on the panels are from the original 18th century watercolours by Samuel Hieronymus Grimm who illustrated Gilbert White’s most famous book, The Natural History of Selborne. The watercolours show Selborne as it was in the 18th century and visitors today will see how little the village and surrounding area has changed.

Last year marked the 300th anniversary of Gilbert White’s birth and the display, designed and produced by Alistair Abbott at Abbott Barker Brooks Ltd. is a tribute to his life’s work, in which he observed and recorded nature including the animals, birds and plant life found on his doorstep in Hampshire and nearby in the South Downs in Sussex. White is most famously known for being the first to formally record and identify the Harvest Mouse and for his work on the migration of swifts, swallows and house-martins.

“For a man who lived a quiet and secluded life in a small Hampshire village, Gilbert was immensely active,” said Philip Geddes, Trustee of the Gilbert White’s House & Gardens in Selborne, and author of the display text. “He was a great gardener, producing food for friends and family. He was the first to grow potatoes in the area, and worked out a way of growing melons successfully in the unfriendly English climate. But he combined this with careful observation of all aspects of nature – he identified several new species of animals, including the harvest mouse, and his observations on the important role of earthworms in fertilising the ground inspired Darwin to write a book on the subject. We are very grateful to the Cathedral for lending us the North Aisle so that Gilbert’s remarkable life and achievements can be properly celebrated. “

An inspiration to many naturalists, Gilbert White transformed the way we look at the natural world, influencing the likes of Charles Darwin amongst many others. The publication of his book, The Natural History of Selborne, concluded 20 years of his observations and findings and it remains the fourth-longest, constantly-in-print book in the English language.

Roland Riem, Vice-Dean and Canon Chancellor at Winchester Cathedral said: “The Cathedral is delighted to welcome this display, dedicated to one of the Diocese’s most famous and fascinating past clergymen. It is important that Gilbert White, an iconic Hampshire figure, is recognised and celebrated as his life and work is highly relevant today, at a time of rapid environmental change.”

A clergyman, Gilbert White was a curate in parishes all over Hampshire but served Selborne church for the longest period of his life. Ironically, Gilbert, like many 18th century clergy, was a rare visitor to his diocesan Cathedral and is recorded to have visited Winchester Cathedral only once, to admire a new altar piece on the 6th April 1782. He is buried in the graveyard of St Mary’s Church in Selborne and has only a small, plain gravestone marked with his initials, GW. The church installed a magnificent stained-glass window memorialising him in 1920.

During the summer, a number of events will be held at Gilbert White’s House & Gardens to celebrate Gilbert Whites 301st birthday and Kimberley James, Collections and Marketing Manager will be giving an online talk, ‘Gilbert White, the outdoor naturalist’, hosted by Winchester Cathedral in the coming months.