Apocrypha by Gilbert White with annotations by the author and family inscriptions, £2400 at Ewbank’s.

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Despite following a spiritual career as a churchman, Gilbert White (1720-93) was also fascinated by the temporal world – specifically his natural surroundings.

So much so that he now has the reputation of being the first ecologist.

He believed in studying living birds and animals in their natural habitat, an unusual approach at that time, as most naturalists preferred to carry out detailed examinations of dead specimens in the comfort of their studies.

White’s best-known work in print is the The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne, which was published in 1789.

However, 30 years before producing that book he had written Apocrypha, a copy of which was offered at Ewbank’s (25% buyer’s premium) auction house in Send, Surrey, on June 23.

Sold online for a within estimate £2400 to a north of England buyer, what made this special was the fact it was his personal copy and came complete with the parson-naturalist’s handwritten marginalia and notes.

The book is dated October 1758 and is inscribed on the front flyleaf by members of Gilbert White’s family. It is bound in contemporary pigskin with later spine and contained within a modern cloth, clamshell box, and further contained within a patterned cardboard box.

Inscriptions noted

The box contains a detailed history of how the book changed hands, with a typescript paper label tipped-in to the inside of the top lid, listing the signatures on the flyleaf, and titled Note of Inscriptions, 18 September, 1922.

One signature is that of Bishop Gilbert White, born in 1859, who was the great grand-nephew of Gilbert White. He emigrated to Australia, where in 1900 he became Bishop of Carpentaria before transferring to the new Willochra Diocese in South Australia in 1915.

A label on the front pastedown written in manuscript reads: This book which belonged to Gilbert White of Selborne was presented to the Gilbert White Fellowship by Gilbert White Bishop of Willochra, S. Aust. July 1922. The bishop’s signature is dated 1893 on the lower right corner of the facing flyleaf.

Another signature is that of Mary White (nee Yalden) who married Thomas White, one of Gilbert’s younger brothers, with the date 1794 assigned to her imprint. A further long inscription reads: Formerly belonging to the Rev. Mr. Holt, of Stratham, our Great Grandfather, B.W. see the Couplet answered in his handwriting, Given by Mary White to her Niece Maria White at Maidford [Northants] Nov 16, 1823.

Another states: F. Gilbert White, Leusden Vicarage, who gave it to his son Gilbert White June 9, 1893.

Wakes home

Gilbert White was born on July 18, 1720, in his grandfather’s vicarage at Selborne, Hampshire. His parents were John White (1688-1758), a trained barrister, and Anne Holt (d.1740). The White family lived briefly at Compton, Surrey, before moving into The Wakes in Selborne in 1728, which was to be his home for the rest of his life – and is now the Gilbert White’s House museum.

In October 1746 he was ordained a deacon and became curate for his Uncle Charles who was vicar in the neighbouring Hampshire village of Farringdon before his full ordination in 1749. He later became curate of the Selborne parish.

Museum connections

The Apocrypha was purchased at Christie’s South Kensington in 1982. The buyer – Ewbank’s vendor – loaned it to the Gilbert White museum for exhibition later that year and it was returned in February 1991.

In 2022 it was announced that the museum had acquired at Bonhams an archive of items all related to the White family, which had sold for £1300 in March that year. One of the highlights was a silver salver or tray, engraved with the arms of Gilbert White’s paternal grandmother Rebecca Luckin.

The other star object was an author’s copy of the first-ever biography of Gilbert White, written by one of his brother’s descendants. Gilbert White’s Life and Letters was owned by the author Rashleigh Holt-White.