13 April 2012

Gilbert White in Selborne, Hampshire

Gilbert White (1720–93) was born in the vicarage (now gone) in the village of Selborne, Hampshire, where he lived for 66 years. On graduating from Oriel College, Oxford, he returned to Selborne,  and is now famed for his writings on the natural history of the village, notably for The Natural History of Selborne (1789), which is still in print today.

These images are of the back of the house from the garden. The full title of the house is Gilbert White's House & Oates Museum. The house, known as The Wakes, came up for sale in 1954 and in an attempt to 'save [it] for the nation', a public appeal was made. This initially failed, although Robert Washington Oates, a relative of Atlantic explorer Captain Lawrence Oates who had a large amount of family memorabilia, gave a considerable sum of money to what is now in effect a joint museum: downstairs, about half of the upper floor and the garden are given to Gilbert White, and the rest to the Oates family – the ostensible incongruity of the enterprise being covered by the catch-all phrase 'Exploring the Natural World'.

As so often, photography is not allowed in the house. But thankfully, there's a very interesting and quite extensive garden, which White – an enthusiastic gardener – based on the work of the landscape gardener William Kent. Much has been done to bring back the garden to a semblance of how it might have looked in White's day, using his diaries Garden Kalendar (1751–67) and Naturalist's Journal (1768–93).

The Herb Garden with the summer obelisk: in The Natural History of Selborne, White suggested someone could make two "heliotropes" marking the shortest and the longest day of the year. Constructed more or less according to his plans, this marks the position of the sun on the longest day as seen from his window in the Great Parlour.

The well head in the Wild Flower Garden.

Gilbert's Whites' sundial.

Not a gazebo, but 'The Alcove'.

And slightly lower down  from the sundial and The Alcove, a ha-ha.

One of the garden's most unusual features is the wine-pipe seat, made of course out of a vat.

Inside, on one side of the seat is the inscription:

'Through the generosity of Charlotte Bonham-Carter,
the Trustees of her Charity have been able to help
in the restoration of Gilbert White's Garden.
Reader, sit here, and remember her many kind acts.'

And on the other side:

'This splendid barrel, large enough to hold a pipe of port,
is the generous gift of


Gilbert was keen to have an elegant garden and park as befitted a country gentleman, but lacked the means. Accordingly he has a board statue painted, which quite deceives the eye from a distance. Statues of Hercules were popular ornaments in 18th century gardens. [I just wonder about that last sentence: is it designed to prevent the queering of the unmarried White? Maybe not, but it's still interesting.]

"Set up about twenty yards into the Hangar, in a line with the six gates, the statue of Hesperian Hercules, painted on a board, eight feet high, on a pedestal of four feet & a half. It looks like a statue, and shows well all over our outlet."
Gilbert White's Garden Kalendar, 24th January 1758.

"We hope John Carpenter [who made the original 'statue'] and Hercules are both upon their legs again. I do not take them to be congenial tho' the carpenter seems a pretty stick of wood enough & I wish he has no more pain than the subject matter."
Letter from John Mulso (no. 23), 17th October 1757."'

In 1760 the Fruit Wall was a major project of White's, although now only a small part of the wall remains.

But the datestone marked 'G. W. 1761' is intact.

Just a few steps away from the museum is the church.

St Mary's Church, Selborne, where the naturalist Gilbert White and his grandfather were vicars, here showing the east window of the south aisle and the chancel.

And then, Gilbert White's humble grave.

But the most interesting things are inside the church. This is an amazing Gilbert White-dedicated window in the south aisle, with three lights, the central one of which shows an image of St Francis 'preaching to the birds'.

'Gilbert White
Lovers of nature and the man
have placed this window here
as a mark of admiration and esteem

The window marks the bicentenary of White's birth.

There are many birds represented here, and the effect can be quite startling. This shot shows just a few of them.

The east window is another memorial to White.

'Gilbert White

A humble student of nature'

'For a faithful priest'

'And a writer of genius
Anno Domini 1993'. This window commemorates the bicentenary of White's death.

And the central light shows not birds but all kinds of animals, such as the fox, rabbit, and hare here.

Here, there's a tortoise, a frog, a snail, and I don't know.

In this one there's a hedgehog, a bat, and er, a weasel? Who cares? It's lovely anyway.
Just in front of the altar rail is the slab to Gilbert(us) White, the naturalist vicar's grandfather  who was buried under the floor. No such formalities for the grandson, who thought all this old-fashioned, hence the simple grave round the back.

Along with White's old house on the High Street, there are a few memories of Gilbert that linger. This is Cobbler Cottage, which was owned by Timothy Turner, and White bought half his garden to grow vegetables. White married Timothy (aged 72) to his second wife Rose (aged 69).

Bricklayer and builder lived at Rose Cottage, and was responsible for building White's stone ha-ha and his brick paths.

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