Scientist of the Day - Thomas Pennant
Thomas Pennant, a Welsh naturalist, died Dec. 16, 1798, at the age of 72. Although he lived in the Welsh Marches, near Cheshire, well off the beaten track of most English travelers, he managed to interact with a surprising number of notable people. Out of curiosity, I searched the Library’s archive of previous "Scientists of the Day", and Pennant came up five times, even though he himself had never been the day's featured scientist. One of those pieces was on Joseph Banks, who came home from Captain Cook's first voyage and set off for Iceland via the Scottish Hebrides. The pictures he commissioned of Staffa and Fingal's Cave ended up in one of Pennant's own travel books, A Tour in Scotland and Voyage to the Hebrides (1774).
George Stubbs was one of the great English horse painters, but one of his most famous paintings depicted not a horse but a young moose; it was commissioned by William Hunter, and an engraving of the moose ended up in a book by Pennant that we discuss below. Moses Griffith was a talented but poor Welsh natural history illustrator who left behind several small portfolios of animal watercolors that we just happen to have in our History of Science Collection. He was lucky enough to find a patron to support his artistic endeavors, and the patron was, of course, Thomas Pennant. Gilbert White was a naturalist; his Natural History of Selborne (1789) is by far the most popular book of local natural history ever published in England. It was written as a series of letters to two correspondents; one was Daines Barrington, and the other was Pennant. We have 7 editions of The Natural History of Selborne in the Library, including the first, which means we have a lot of letters addressed to Mr. Pennant.
Pennant managed to interact with the likes of Banks, Stubbs, and White because he was an inveterate correspondent, and because he liked to travel. He made two trips to Scotland, another through Wales, and quite a few to London. We have three other works by him in our collections, aside from the ones already mentioned. The earliest is his British Zoology (1766), a luxurious folio that could only have been published by a very wealthy squire. It has over a hundred beautiful hand-colored engravings of an assortment of mammal and birds, most of them painted by Peter Paillou. We show here a hedgehog (first image), a heron (third image), and a black-billed auk (fourth image). This is a very large book, so the engravings must be seen in person to be fully appreciated.
We also have two editions of a more modest Pennant publication, called Arctic Zoology, which appeared in two quarto volumes in 1784, with a supplement in 1787, and then all three volumes reissued in 1792. For some reason, I requested images from the second edition rather than the first, but the engravings are the same in both editions. This is the work that contains the Stubbs engraving of a moose mentioned above (and which you can see at the link above). The frontispiece, “A Winter Scene in Lapland,” is a little over-dramatic (fifth image above), but the title-page vignette, where the moose makes a reappearance, is alluring, especially if you are charmed by mooses with eyelashes (sixth image, just above).
Other illustrations in the book included a fine engraving of two birds, a ferruginous woodpecker and nuthatch (seventh image, above), and charming scene that shows egg-hunters in the Orkney’s overcoming all odds to secure their catch from the rocky nests of seabirds (eighth image, just above).
There is a fine oil portrait of Pennant by Thomas Gainsborough in the National Museum of Wales, painted in 1776. We show here a stipple engraving made after Gainsborough’s portrait, which is in the Wellcome Collection (second image). I wonder if the book Pennant is clutching in the portrait is identifiable. It is certainly NOT a volume of his British Zoology, which not only would occupy so much of the canvas that Pennant himself might not be visible, but would also certainly have toppled him from his perch.
And just because we can, we conclude with a close-up detail of Pennant’s hedgehog. Since the hedgehog is our library’s unofficial mascot, Pennant’s version has often made appearances on Library publications, such as our house journal, the Hedgehog.
Dr. William B. Ashworth, Jr., Consultant for the History of Science, Linda Hall Library and Associate Professor emeritus, Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City. Comments or corrections are welcome; please direct to firstname.lastname@example.org.