Gilbert White’s copy of John Ray’s Synopsis Methodica Avium et Piscarum and the construction of the Natural History of Selborne

The Reverend Gilbert White (1720-93) is perhaps best known for his book The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne, an established classic which has remained in print since its initial publication in 1789. White’s work is compiled from a series of letters he wrote’ to the esteemed naturalists Thomas Pennant (1726-98) and Daines Barrington (1727/8-1800), who recognised the advantages of having a well-informed correspondent in a remote part of the country for their research;[1] particularly Pennant, who was in the process of writing his work British Zoology.[2] White had initially been introduced to Pennant by his brother, Benjamin White (1754-1821), a London based publisher and fellow of the Royal Society, who published many of Pennant’s books. Benjamin White was also essential for supplying Gilbert White with a selection of books which he used to support his observations of different species, many of which he mentioned in his letters which were later published in his Natural History.

One book white relied on for his Natural History was John Ray’s Synopsis Methodica Avium & Piscium (1713) which came to the Whipple Library as part of a bequest from the Balfour Library, Cambridge, in 1951 (Figures 1 and 2). Ray’s work and system was one of the most widely used and accepted means for the classification of animals in mid-eighteenth-century Britain. In this work, Ray classified birds and fish according to their general physical resemblances, ordering birds by relating similarities between their size, feet and beaks and comparing fish to one another through the sizes of their fins, certain social attributes or if they inhabit salt or fresh water.[3]

White’s copy of Ray’s Synopsis methodica avium & piscium proved to be an essential tool in his fieldwork in and around Selborne, allowing him to identify, describe and classify the species he observed. On September 9th 1767, White wrote to Thomas Pennant describing a pair of highly unusual and exotic hoopoes he observed in Selborne:

The most unusual birds I ever observed in these parts were a pair of hoopoes (upupa), which came several years ago in the summer, and frequented an ornamented piece of ground, which joins to my garden, for some weeks. They used to march about in a stately manner, feeding in the walks, many times in the day; and seemed disposed to breed in my outlet; but were frighted and persecuted by idle boys, who would never let them be at rest.[4]

White’s use of his copy of Ray’s Synopsis quickly becomes apparent. Next to the entry in which Ray described the hoopoe, White has inscribed ‘a pair seen at Selborne’, recording his observation of this exotic bird in his garden (Figure 2).[5]

Figure 2

This addition evidently supplements the description in Ray’s work, inserting new information on the geographical distribution of this particular species and relating it to White’s immediate environment. This information was evidently very useful for Pennant’s description of the hoopoe in the 1768-70 edition of the British Zoology, in which he described how the hoopoe ‘visits these islands [Britain] frequently, but not at stated seasons’.[6]

White’s observations were not merely isolated to the rural Hampshire parish of Selborne. Rather, his letters reveal that he had connections throughout Britain and the world. These were augmented by his correspondents, such as Pennant and Joseph Banks (1746–1820), who travelled on Cook’s first voyage to the Pacific between 1768 and 1771 and from 1778 President of the Royal Society. One of White’s main correspondents was his brother, John White (1727-80), an army chaplain in Gibraltar. John frequently corresponded with Gilbert, providing information on the natural history of Gibraltar which Gilbert compared with that of Selborne, adding additional authority to his correspondence. Annotations which refer to John White’s letters appear throughout Gilbert White’s copy of Ray, in which he constantly compares the species he observed in Selbourne to those his brother observed in Gibraltar. One example is the Cyanos (song thrush), which White noted to have been seen ‘On the Rock of Gibraltar’ (Figure 3).[7]

White’s copy of Ray’s Synopsis Methodia Avium & Piscium shows how this small book was used in the process of creating one of the most influential natural histories of the late eighteenth century, a resource that continued to be used by natural historians throughout the nineteenth century.  For example, the Kent based naturalist and correspondent of Charles Darwin, Henry Norman, owned a copy of the 1822 edition of White’s Natural History that he had interleaved. He ‘then filled in the blank pages with observations of species undertaken in his local district (Figure 4).

Figure 4

White used this book to accumulate information on his personal observations or those relayed to him by a network of correspondents, which he then collated and used in his letters to Pennant, which detailed his observations of the natural world around him. These annotations clearly present an insight into White’s working practices; he used it as a vessel to continually collect and compile important information from his direct observations and correspondence. The detailed letters White assembled from these different sources were then edited and published, forming one of the most successful works of natural history which remains in print to this day.   

Further Reading: For additional information on White’s copy of Ray, please see this article written by the author of this post: Edwin D. Rose, ‘Gilbert White, John Ray and the construction of The Natural History of Selborne’, Archives of Natural History, 46:1 (2019): 105–112.

Edwin D. Rose

History and Philosophy of Science

[1] Anne Secord, (ed.)., and Gilbert White, The Natural History of Selborne (Oxford: 2013), p. xiii.

[2] Thomas Pennant, British Zoology (London: 1768-1770). This work reached three editions, the first published in 1768-70, the second in 1776 and the third in 1812.

[3] See Charles Raven, John Ray, Naturalist (Cambridge,1942), at pp. 326-330 and pp. 358-369.

[4] Gilbert White, The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne (London: 1789), pp. 30-31.

[5] John Ray, Synopsis Methodica Avium & Piscum (London: 1713), Whipple Library, Cambridge, STORE: 5416, p. 48.

[6] Thomas Pennant, British Zoology, (London: 1776), vol. 1., p. 258.

[7] Ray, p. 66.