# Top topics

culture outdoors green spaces

Exhibition exploring legacy of nature writer J.A. Baker opens at Chelmsford Museum

Restless Brilliance: The Story of J.A. Baker and The Peregrine opens at Chelmsford Museum on Saturday 23 March.

JA Baker Exhibition (8)

Co-curated by Chelmsford Museum and the University of Essex, it is the first exhibition to explore the life of one of the UK’s greatest nature writers, John Alec Baker, and the impact of his celebrated work.

Restless Brilliance features 60 items, on display for the first time, from the University of Essex’s J.A. Baker archive in the Albert Sloman Library. From personal photographs to his detailed ornithological diaries, they reveal more about the man behind The Peregrine and his creative process.

JA Baker Exhibition (16)
A cabinet displaying Baker's photograph alongside manuscripts and early editions of The Peregrine and fan mail sent to Baker.

The exhibition also draws on contributions from well-known modern-day naturalists, such as Chris Packham and Sir David Attenborough, as well as from residents and artists, as it seeks to highlight the influential author’s legacy today.

Co-curators Dr Sarah Demelo of the University of Essex and Sarah Harvey of Chelmsford Museum say the sharing of Baker’s story is long overdue:

“J.A. Baker’s books had a profound influence on nature writing and on the survival of the peregrine in the UK. Nearly 60 years later, his prose continues to inspire, and yet we know relatively little about the man himself.

“We hope that visitors to Restless Brilliance will leave with a greater understanding of Baker’s evolution as a writer and ornithologist, as well as a newfound appreciation for Essex and its wildlife and biodiversity today.”

Dr Sarah Demelo, Curator (ESCALA, Art & Special Collections), University of Essex and Sarah Harvey, Curatorial and Learning Officer, Chelmsford Museum

Contributions from well-known naturalists capture the impact of The Peregrine

First published in 1967, The Peregrine is now celebrated as a classic in British nature writing. Over the years it has attracted a remarkable list of famous advocates and admirers, from nature writer Robert Macfarlane to filmmaker Werner Herzog.

As part of the exhibition, modern-day conservationists and naturalists were asked to share how Baker’s writing has inspired them.

Wildlife TV Presenter and Conservationist Chris Packham revealed how The Peregrine’s powerful prose captivated him:

“… I was now enchanted and enraptured by its simple open beauty. Now I could feel that landscape, hear those winter fields, smell the mud, see the big skies. I was enveloped in a defined place, still stark, harsh, hard, but so deftly woven onto the page, with its delicate and evocative descriptions of a strange land. And significantly, the birds faded in their overall significance, became only players on pages of the very finest of prose, inspired by nature.”

Chris Packham, Wildlife TV Presenter and Conservationist
JA Baker Exhibition (25)
The exhibition also explores the impact of The Peregrine and Baker's life after it was written.

Audio content highlights Baker’s legacy for generations today

The multi-layered exhibition also uses audio content to bring Baker’s dramatic writing to the forefront, connecting audiences with the Essex landscapes that inspired him.

As visitors explore Baker’s archive, they can listen to extracts from the audiobook of The Peregrine, read out by the nation’s most recognisable voice – broadcaster and conservationist, Sir David Attenborough.

JA Baker Exhibition (2)
A taxidermy peregrine in Chelmsford Museum's collection is also on display in the exhibition.

Recordings of the writer’s poetry, correspondence, and diaries have also been created to enjoy alongside the original documents on display. Curators reached out to local communities and environmental charities, including the Wilderness Foundation, to voice these recordings.

Contributions from local artists explore modern-day responses to Baker’s works too. These include an immersive soundscape by Stuart Bowditch of the Blackwater Estuary that Baker loved.

Through these elements, Restless Brilliance hopes to inspire residents, especially young people, to react to Baker’s works by walking in his footsteps and exploring Essex’s present-day landscapes. Councillor Marie Goldman, Deputy Leader of Chelmsford City Council and Cabinet Member for a Connected Chelmsford, says the exhibition highlights how everyone can connect with the environment:

“Restless Brilliance demonstrates how anyone can immerse themselves in our natural landscapes and become an agent for positive change, regardless of background, knowledge, or qualifications. I hope this exhibition will encourage a sense of pride in our natural landscapes across Chelmsford and Essex and inspire visitors – particularly our younger generations – to get out and connect with our district’s natural environment, just as Baker did more than 50 years ago.”

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

Accompanying events programme to spotlight nature and wellbeing

Restless Brilliance: The Story of J.A. Baker and The Peregrine is on display at Chelmsford Museum from 23 March to 3 November 2024. Chelmsford Museum is open daily from 10am to 4pm November to March, and 10am to 5pm April to October.

A supporting programme of events and learning opportunities focused on nature, the environment and wellbeing will run alongside the exhibition. Details will be shared in the coming weeks.

facebook twitter mail linkedin
Cherelle Nightingill
Cherelle Nightingill

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