MY HOUSE OF SKY
J. A. Baker’s The Peregrine is considered one of the most influential nature books of the twentieth century. Wernor Herzog tells students of his Rogue Film School it is an “absolute must-read piece of literature", while Robert Macfarlane hails it as “a masterpiece of the literature of place." The Peregrine is loved and acclaimed by many, yet very little has emerged about its author since the book’s publication 50 years ago. Until now, the life of J. A. Baker has been shrouded in mystery.
With its title inspired by a fragment of J.A. Baker's writing discovered in the archive, My House of Sky by Hetty Saunders will be the first ever biography of J. A. Baker. It will include specially commissioned photographs from the J. A. Baker Archive, previously unpublished poems by J. A. Baker, a foreword by Robert Macfarlane and a short essay by bird conservationist John Fanshawe.
The first draft of My House of Sky has just been finished by Hetty but there is still a long way to go! Alongside helping Little Toller cover the costs of printing this beautiful book in full colour, your contribution to the project will enable the photographer Christopher Matthews' documentation of the J. A. Baker Archive at Essex University, and allow us to commission the artist Jo Sweeting to create a special edition print-portrait to celebrate J. A. Baker's life and work. The photographs will be included in the book, while Jo Sweeting's artwork will become the frontispiece and form an integral part of the special, limited edition.
DISCOVERING THE LIFE & WORK OF J. A. BAKER
Compelling, strange and at times both funny and startlingly cruel, the prose of J. A. Baker first captured the popular imagination in 1967, when The Peregrine was awarded the Duff Cooper Memorial Prize. That reviewers should characterise him as an obsessive recluse seemed to whet the appetite of readers; yet this image contradicts reports of the man who, when he accepted the £200 prize, nevertheless gave a speech which was, by all accounts, “deft, funny and graceful”. Picking through the archive over several years, the young author Hetty Saunders has discovered that this contradiction was only the edge of J. A. Baker’s life and work.
Until recently little of J. A. Baker’s life seemed to remain, other than his two books The Peregrine and The Hill of Summer. His story and the story of his books had vanished with him, when he died in 1987. But in 2010 John Fanshawe and Mark Cocker started to discover fragments of the author’s life as they collaborated on a book of J. A. Baker's works: first his diary and some letters from old school friends, then a box of miscellanea recovered from his sister's home, along with photographs of the spines of all the books in J.A. Baker's library.
This discovery was the breakthrough, revealing the extraordinary annotated maps of Essex, more letters, notebooks, unpublished poems and even a pair of leather-trimmed field binoculars. All these findings were gathered together and archived at the University of Essex in 2013, and for the first time it became possible to piece together from these fragments a portrait of a man whose writing is still, in the words of Mark Cocker, “the gold standard for all nature writing”.
Hetty Saunders was first introduced to J. A. Baker and the Baker Archive while studying as a literature postgraduate with Robert Macfarlane at the University of Cambridge. She was instantly captivated by the astounding prose of Baker’s first book, The Peregrine, and the mysterious life of its author. Hetty has been working as an independent researcher and archivist in the Baker Archive since October 2015; she has written a descriptive bibliographic catalogue of the Archive, available from the website of the Albert Sloman Library Special Collections at the University of Essex.
John Fanshawe is Head of Policy and Advocacy for BirdLife. He is also co-author of a Field Guide to the Birds of East Africa, and collaborated in 2010 with Mark Cocker to edit and publish the diaries of J. A. Baker. He is a founder member of New Networks for Nature.
Robert Macfarlane, who has written the foreword, is a prolific author whose bestselling books about the British landscape and beyond include The Old Ways, Landmarks, Holloway, Mountains of the Mind and The Wild Places. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.
Christopher Matthews studied and worked as a documentary photographer in New Zealand. Since living in the UK, he has made work about cultural sites in Israel, the landscapes and architecture of the Cold War and the North Essex landscapes associated with the painter John Nash. He is currently working on a portfolio of East Anglian photographs by the photojournalist, Kurt Hutton.
Jo Sweeting is a sculptor and letter carver, living and working in Brighton. Her work is based on the concept of ‘Shul’, a passing impression or mark left on the landscape – from a dry riverbed to a hollow where an animal has slept on the grass. She carves these impressions into clay, wood, plaster and bronze. Her sketches for the book are shown above.
Little Toller is a small, independent publisher based in West Dorset. Our work is attuned to writers and artists who seek inventive ways to reconnect us with the natural world and to celebrate the places we live in.