… had a sense of humour, as shown on many occasions in his writings, and not least in the title of his ‘sort-of’ autobiography, The Literary Life of the Late Thomas Pennant, Esq., which he published in 1793, five years before his death.
Pennant was born at Downing Hall, in the parish of Whitford, near Holywell, Flintshire, in 1726. His father was a gentleman, and his mother a gentleman’s daughter (as Jane Austen would have put it): the Pennant family had owned their Welsh estate since the Norman Conquest.
The ODNB describes Pennant as ‘naturalist, traveller, and writer’. It’s not obvious that this is the right order: after all, his autobiography is called ‘The Literary Life’. The book starts in medias res, with the marginal note ‘Original Cause of my Studies’ and a statement: ‘A present of the ornithology of Francis Willoughby, esq. made to me, when I was about the age of twelve, by my kinsman the late John Salisbury, esq. of Bachegraig, in the county of Flint, father of the fair and celebrated writer Mrs Piozzi, first gave me a taste for that study, and incidentally a love for that of natural history in general, which I have since pursued with my constitutional ardor.’
Francis Willughby (as the ODNB spells it), born in 1635, met the great John Ray at Cambridge, and became his close friend and collaborator in taxonomic studies: Ray focused on plants and Willughby on everything else. His Ornithology was edited and published by Ray from the notes and papers which he left on his early death in 1672. (Ray also acted as tutor to his children, including his daughter Cassandra, who later married the duke of Chandos for whom Handel wrote his anthems.)
Pennant attended Oxford, but he did not take a degree. (He was given an honorary doctorate by the university in 1771.) While at Oxford, he took a trip into Cornwall which extended his enthusiasm to non-organic natural history: he developed ‘a strong passion for minerals and fossils’, and his first appearance on print was in fact an account of an earthquake felt at Downing on 2 April 1750. This was written for his maternal uncle James Mytton, who, unknown to his nephew, placed it in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.
He also travelled to Wales and Ireland – but on the latter trip, ‘such was the conviviality of the country, that my journal proved as maigre as my entertainment was gras, so it never was a dish fit to be offered to the public’. Another wonderful circumlocution for ‘excessive drinking’ is provided in his note about the artist Peter Pallou: his works ‘all have their merit, but occasion me to lament his conviviality, which affected his circumstances and abridged his days’.
Pennant’s interest in antiquities led to his being made a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries in 1754, but he resigned four years later, on his first marriage, because, he says: ‘I vainly thought my happiness would have been permanent, and that I never should have been called again from my retirement to amuse myself in town, or to be of use to the society.’ (An alternative reason proffered by the ODNB was that he could not afford the fees.)
But from his ‘retirement’ in Flintshire, he clearly kept in touch with the wider literary and scientific world by correspondence, exchanging letters and specimens with many European savants, especially Linnaeus, by whose influence he was made a fellow of the Royal Society of Uppsala, ‘the first and greatest of my literary honours’.
The first edition of his first book, British Zoology, was begun in 1761, and published as a folio in 1766. The profits were to go to the ‘Welsh school, near Gray’s-inn-lane, London’, and Pennant himself subsidised the production costs: ‘I lost considerably by it… I was … ill-advised to publish on such large paper; had it been originally in quarto, the school would have been considerably benefited by it’ – and the CLC could have reissued it! A second edition in 1768 was in two volumes, quarto, with only 17 plates, as opposed to the cxxxii of the original. A third volume, on fish, followed in 1769.
In the mean time, Pennant had travelled across Europe, meeting Buffon in Paris: they got on well face-to-face, but a literary quarrel arose which caused Buffon to abuse him in the Histoire des oiseaux, and to suppress any acknowledgement of illustrations supplied for the Histoire naturelle: ‘These are no great matters: I lament them only as small defects in a great character.’ A tendency to quarrel seems to have marked or marred other relationships. For example, he first met Joseph Banks in 1766, stayed with him at Revesby Abbey, ‘and must acknowledge the various obligations I lie under to that gentleman for his liberal communications resulting from the uncommon extent of his travels’. But ‘an unhappy interruption of our friendship once took place, but it recommenced, I trust, to the content of both parties, in a fortunate moment in March 1790’.
‘My mind was always in a progressive state, it could never stagnate’, so he turned to the natural history of India, and then to ‘the remotest part of North Britain, a country almost as little known to its southern brethren as Kamtschatka’. The publication of A Tour in Scotland, 1769, ‘shewing that it might be visited with safety’ meant that ‘it has ever since been inondée with southern visitants’. A second visit, to include the Hebrides, was described in A Tour in Scotland, and Voyage to the Hebrides, 1772. Pennant could not get to Staffa, but made use of Banks’s notes from his visit in the same year, and dedicated the volume to him.
At the same time, he was compiling further zoological works: first, Synopsis of Quadrupeds (1771), which was revised and enlarged in 1781 as A History of Quadrupeds. (We have reissued the 3rd edition of 1793, which Darwin had on the Beagle voyage.) In 1784–5 came the two-volume Arctic Zoology, beautifully illustrated, like the quadrupeds, with line engravings.
Pennant took advantage of knowledge gained on his frequent visits to London to publish A Journey from Chester to London in 1782, and Of London in 1790, as well as many other accounts of tours, some published posthumously. His writing received the highest accolade: Dr Johnson remarked that although Pennant was a Whig (not good), yet ‘he’s the best traveller I ever read; he observes more things than anyone else does’.
One of the charms of his travel writing is precisely that he is constantly observing things – and he is an omnivore, his attention captured by all sorts of detail, unlike, for example, William Gilpin, who is more focussed on his relentless search for the sublime. A possible weakness in his works is that he is happy to rely on the accounts of others: he wrote an ‘authoritative’ account of Patagonia (which appears as an appendix in the Literary Life), based entirely on his reading and his conversations with an ‘aged Jesuit’, Mr Faulkner, who had spent 38 years in Patagonia, and told tall tales of an extraordinarily tall race of men, which Pennant defended vehemently against the sceptical French.
Other appendices remind us that, as well as writing and travelling, Pennant was carrying out the duties of a landed gentleman: he was never formally involved in politics, but he served as High Sheriff of Flintshire, and busied himself with many local projects for the common good. He also wrote a History of the Parishes of Whiteford and Holywell, which contains family as well as local history. It was published three years after ‘the late Thomas Pennant’ had signed the preface of his autobiography in ghostly writing, and was signed ‘Resurgam’. When he really did die, in 1798, he was planning a 22-volume Outlines of the Globe, a work of imaginary travels, of which only four volumes (the latter two edited by his son) ever saw the light of day.
Pennant’s greatest claims to fame are probably his zoological works, which are the first illustrated natural histories published in English, and led to many other books (notably those by Bewick) in which the image of the animal informs and enlivens the prose description. But he has additional significance in the history of British science, as one of the two recipients (along with Daines Barrington) of the letters which became Gilbert White’s Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne.