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Chelmsford Museum exhibition to explore legacy of legendary local nature writer

John Alec Baker Sitting On A Fallen Tree
J.A. Baker. Image courtesy of the University of Essex Special Collections.

An exhibition on the life and works of celebrated local nature author and conservationist, J.A. Baker, will open at Chelmsford Museum in spring 2024.

Co-curated by Chelmsford Museum and the University of Essex, Restless Brilliance: The Story of J.A. Baker and The Peregrine will be the first exhibition to explore the life and works of the influential yet relatively unknown nature writer. It will share his story through more than 60 objects, mostly loaned from the university’s extensive J.A. Baker archive.

Handwritten Text From The Peregrine
A page of handwritten text from J.A. Baker’s The Peregrine, focused on the words ‘that restless brilliance’. Image courtesy of the University of Essex Special Collections.

Held in the Special Collections section of the Albert Sloman Library, the archive includes Baker’s letters, early manuscripts, unpublished works, ornithological diaries, photographs, and binoculars among other items. Baker’s brother-in-law, Bernard Coe, and conservationist, John Fanshawe, donated the collection to the University of Essex in 2013.

Critically acclaimed author’s passion for Essex countryside

Restless Brilliance will highlight Baker’s prominence in Chelmsford’s history. Born in Chelmsford in 1926, John Alec Baker lived in the district for most of his life. He was an enthusiastic bird watcher and environmental campaigner. The author is best known for his first and most successful work, The Peregrine, widely considered to be a literary masterpiece.

Baker was passionate about the Essex countryside. Over many years he recorded his observations of the landscape during frequent walks and cycles around the Blackwater estuary, Danbury Hill, and Chelmsford.

Published in 1967, The Peregrine summarises ten years of his obsessive observations of the bird, especially around Chelmer Valley and the Essex coast. The uniquely poetic book won the prestigious Duff Cooper Memorial Prize for the “evocative power and sheer beauty” of Baker’s writing.

The Peregrine quickly became a cult classic in British nature writing, and over the years it has attracted a remarkable list of famous advocates and admirers. Nature writer Robert MacFarlane described it 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. Broadcaster and national treasure, David Attenborough, is also a fan, having narrated the audiobook in 2019.

Restless Brilliance aims to increase awareness and understanding of an extraordinary but relatively unknown figure in Chelmsford’s history

While Baker’s works have been highly influential for generations of nature writers and conservationists, he remains relatively unknown among the wider public. Until recently, very little was known about the reclusive author’s personal life, as he sought to maintain a mysterious air to his identity.

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. It will also assess his legacy today in the context of the challenges we continue to face in protecting our natural environment.

The reclusive man behind The Peregrine will also be explored, looking at Baker’s personal relationships, his behaviours, and his battles with mental and physical illness.

By exploring both Baker’s uniquely poetic writing and his personal life, curators at Chelmsford Museum and the University of Essex hope to provide a deeper insight into the life and legacy of an important artist in Chelmsford’s history:

"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."

Sarah Harvey, Curatorial and Learning Officer, Chelmsford Museum

"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 of Essex, where we preserve his legacy and invaluable contributions to nature writing.

Our MA Wild Writing students already gain so much from being able to access the archive so I’m absolutely delighted that this collaboration with Chelmsford Museum will see it displayed outside of the university for the first time next year. This will open Baker up to an even wider audience.

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 Demelo, Curator (ESCALA, Art & Special Collections), University of Essex

Inspiring a new generation of creatives and agents of change

The exhibition also aims to inspire a new generation of nature creatives and agents of change for Essex.

Through highlighting Baker’s passion for nature and his poetic and impactful writing, Restless Brilliance hopes to inspire audiences to take a fresh look at Chelmsford’s unique wildlife, habitats, and fragile ecosystems that, though immensely changed since Baker’s time, remain a key part of the district’s identity.

Map Of Chelmsford Annotated By JA Baker
A map of Chelmsford and the surrounding area, annotated by J.A. Baker. Image courtesy of the University of Essex Special Collections.

It also hopes to spark a renewed interest in the connections between local nature and personal wellbeing, reflecting the escapism that Baker clearly found in Essex’s landscapes.

Chelmsford City Council’s Deputy Leader, Councillor Marie Goldman, says the exhibition aims to inspire a new generation to protect Chelmsford’s biodiversity as part of the city’s shared heritage:

"In 2019 we declared a climate and ecological emergency and pledged to make changes for the protection of Chelmsford’s biodiversity. It is crucial that we continue to talk about and explore the pressures facing the places, habitats, and species we love, and Restless Brilliance at Chelmsford Museum aims to do exactly that.

I want this exhibition to inspire our audiences to embrace the same love that Baker had for Chelmsford’s natural landscapes and wildlife. Ultimately, I hope that it will inspire a new generation of writers, poets, and lyricists, who are committed to protecting our district’s wildlife and green spaces as part of our shared heritage."

Cllr Marie Goldman, Deputy Leader of Chelmsford City Council and Cabinet Member for a Connected Chelmsford

Exhibition opens in March 2024

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.

The museum is open from 10am to 4pm daily from November to March and 10am to 5pm from April to October.

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Cherelle Nightingill
Cherelle Nightingill

Cherelle writes about Chelmsford Theatre, Hylands Estate, Chelmsford Museum, the Mayor of Chelmsford and culture and events in the city.