Exhibition of Essex nature writer’s archive

  • Date

    Thu 7 Dec 23

A close up shot of an old pair of binoculars, which belonged to Essex nature writer J A Baker

An exhibition on the life and works of celebrated Essex nature writer and conservationist J A Baker, which showcases items from our Library’s Special Collections, will open in Chelmsford next year.

Co-curated by Dr Sarah Demelo, Curator at ESCALA and the University's Art and Special Collections, and curator Sarah Harvey, Curatorial and Learning Officer, from Chelmsford Museum, Restless Brilliance: The Story of JA Baker and The Peregrine will be the first exhibition to explore the life and works of the influential yet relatively unknown figure.

It will share his story through more than 60 objects, mostly loaned from the University’s extensive J A Baker archive.

Held in our Special Collections, the archive includes Baker’s letters, early manuscripts, unpublished works, ornithological diaries, photographs, and binoculars among other items. The collection was donated to the University in 2013 by Baker’s brother-in-law, Bernard Coe.

The exhibition, which will open in March, will highlight Baker’s prominence in Chelmsford’s history. Born in the city in 1926, Baker was passionate about the Essex countryside. He is best known for his first and most successful work, The Peregrine which summarises ten years of his obsessive observations of the bird in Essex.

The uniquely poetic book, which won the Duff Cooper Memorial Prize, has been described by nature writer Robert MacFarlane as “a masterpiece of twentieth-century non-fiction”, while filmmaker Werner Herzog includes it as one of three texts that his film students must read.

Restless Brilliance will chart Baker’s life, from his childhood through to his later years. It will look at his lifelong interest in the Essex countryside and his passionate campaigns against the destruction of wildlife.

Dr Demelo said: “J A Baker’s extensive archive reveals so much about the fascinating author and we’ve been honoured to provide a home for it at the University, where we preserve his legacy and invaluable contributions to nature writing.

“I’m absolutely delighted that this collaboration with Chelmsford Museum will see the archive displayed outside of the University for the first time next year, opening Baker up to a much wider audience than we’ve been able to reach before.

“Almost all of Baker’s birdwatching and peregrine observations are focused on an area within walking and cycling distance from his home in Chelmsford. I think it is therefore fitting that the collection will be returning to the district, where the author lived and devoted much of his life to protecting its biodiversity.”

Sarah Harvey, Curatorial and Learning Officer, Chelmsford Museum, said: “J.A. Baker is a critically important figure in twentieth-century nature writing and conservation, but for so long very little has been known about the man himself. And there’s so much more to the writer than just The Peregrine. He was indeed wholly consumed by his obsessions with the bird, but he was also deeply passionate about the Essex countryside in general and an angry advocate for the protection of all nature. At the same time, he was a reclusive and shy man, who sought escape in the natural world from his debilitating physical and mental illness.

“Thanks to this collaboration with the University of Essex, we can finally share Baker’s story with the people of Chelmsford in a creative and meaningful way, in this first exhibition exploring his life. I hope it will give visitors a deeper understanding of this long mysterious figure, as well as a greater appreciation of Essex’s natural landscapes.”

By exploring both Baker’s uniquely poetic writing and his personal life, the curators hope to provide a deeper insight into the life and legacy of an important artist in Chelmsford’s history and inspire a new generation of nature creatives.

Restless Brilliance: The Story of J A Baker and The Peregrine opens at Chelmsford Museum on 23 March 2024 and will be on display until 3 November 2024.