Wandering around By the Book, in Phoenix, Arizona, I was thrilled to see a signed first edition copy of Gilbert White’s (1720-1793) The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne from 1789. Since the initial publication, this classic has never been out of print, with over 300 editions being published since it first arrived on the scene. It is one of the most frequently published books in the English language, with one biographer claiming that only the Bible, the works of Shakespeare, and John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress have been published more in English.
This book is a compilation of 44 letters from White to zoologist Thomas Pennant, and 66 letters to Daines Barrington, a member of the Royal Society along with White. The original edition also included 26 letters on the antiquities, but it is his Natural History that has become an indispensable part of the Western Canon. White used these letters to document his meticulous observations of birds, plants and animals in the countryside around his home, at Selborne in Hampshire. He is often considered England’s first ecologist.
This work is a classic not only for its value as an Enlightenment study of landscape and nature, but even more so for it being a great piece of literature, written in a style that is timeless, providing an atmosphere that is unmatched in its ability to pull the reader into the tranquil world around White’s home in the 18th century English countryside.
About the 1789 Edition
Unfortunately, I only had time to snap a few photos (shown below), and did not have time to study any aspects of the books specific makings. I am not an expert on first editions, or on how to judge the formal condition of books of this age, but for a book 222 years old, it is in excellent shape. The pages are in great shape, though there is some color bleeding from the illustrations unto the facing pages, as you can see in the pictures below.
At the end of the “Advertisement”, above White’s printed signature is the following tipped-on inscription: “Your Loving Bro(the)r. Gil White.” The book is bound in leather boards, rebacked with sprinkled edges. All engravings are present including the double-folding frontispiece panorama of Selborne, two engraved title pages, and seven text engravings–6 full page (one of which folds out) & one half-page engraving with text above. Tipped onto the front endpaper is a page from “The Mirror” (1830) showing “The Birthplace of Reverend Gilbert White”. Tipped-in the rear is a facsimile page from White’s journal. Copies of two autograph letters signed (ALS) by Gilbert White are also included with the book. If interested, the owner of By the Book (Sam), could tell you much more about this very rare edition, so if interested I would suggest giving him a call.
About the Limited Editions Club Edition
I am lacking the monthly letter for this edition, so if anyone has one that they could scan and send to me, that would be appreciated! The LEC edition is beautiful, in my opinion one of their best works (certainly better than most done in the 1970’s). The illustrations by English artist John Nash (1893–1977) are brilliant. Nash was a pre-eminent painter and illustrator of landscapes as well as botanic and nature scenes. He was an accomplished wood engraver, as is well known to collectors of private press books.
- Published in 1972
- Designed by John Lewis
- Leather spine with gold stamped titling
- Illustrations by John Nash, with 16 full page illustrations in color, and 15 illustrations in black and white
- Introduction by The Earl of Cranbrook
- Printed at W.S. Cowell Ltd. in Ipswich, England
- Limited to 1500 copies, mine is 705
Pictures of the First Edition
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Pictures of the LEC Edition
By the way, Folio Society has an edition of Natural History of Selborne which certainly looks very, very nice, as you can see below.