An 18th Century study of the Nature of Britain

Thomas Pennant was a Welsh naturalist during the eighteenth-century. British Zoology, published in 1766 consists of four volumes. The collection was researched and written by Pennant with each volume detailing the various organisms found in Britain. A copy of all four volumes are housed in Worcester Cathedral’s Library and Archive.

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Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

British Zoology is analogous to Linnæus’s eulogium on the study of nature of Sweden – Linnæus, considered the ‘father of taxonomy’, was a figure Pennant admired. The collection is split into four volumes, collectively detailing quadrupeds, birds (land), birds (waterfowl), reptiles, fish, crustaceans, molluscs and shells. Pennant was keen to demonstrate the beauty and diversity of Britain as others such as Linnæus had done with their own countries. Studying the nature of his own surroundings provided him with better and more consistent resources. As a result he had a readily accessible supply of fresh specimens of organisms. This, he claimed, enabled him to reason with certainty and accuracy. ‘Do the heights of Torsburg, or Swucku, afford more instruction to the naturalist than the mountains of Cumberland, or Caernarvonshire?’

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Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)  

Pennant aimed to ‘point out to the British reader, his native riches; many of which were probably unknown to him, or perhaps slightly regarded.’ Each volume contains a description and a black and white etching of every organism. The description – ranging from a sentence to a few paragraphs – includes the individual specimen’s name, synonyms, appearance, anatomy, character, habitat, eating habits, size and weight, and the differences between the female and the male. Accompanying the text throughout the books are the detailed black and white etchings. In volume IV the etchings are collectively listed at the back of the book.

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Images copyright the Dean ad Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

British Zoology divides organisms into animal, vegetable and the fossil kingdom. Pennant claimed that zoology was the noblest part of natural history because it comprehends all sensitive beings – from rational man to every species of animal life, down to vegetable life where sense ceases. Life and voluntary motion, he wrote, were more important and therefore higher ranking than vegetables or the inactive state of fossils.

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Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

In the eighteenth-century natural history and zoology were entwined with theology. A naturalist, through studying nature was essentially studying God – and to study God was to study ourselves. Zoology’s ultimate aim was to practice respect, admiration and loyalty to God, with any benefit to human society, life and knowledge as secondary. Pennant described nature as a gift from God. Studying nature and natural history gave him a better understanding and appreciation of what He gave to the world.

‘[T]he Creator did not bestow so much curiosity, and workmanship on his creatures, to be looked on with a careless incurious eye, especially to have them slighted or condemned; but to be admired by the rational part of the world, to magnify his own power to all the world, and the ages thereof; and since the works of the creation are all of them so many demonstrations of the infinite wisdom and power of God, they may serve to us, as so many arguments, exciting us to a constant fear of the Deity, and a steady and hearty obedience to all his laws.’ Pennant quoting Derham’s Phyhs. Theol. Book XI. C, 24.

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Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

Nature wasn’t only important to science and religion, but to art too. Pennant held the view that nature was the source and therefore an integral aspect of a quality piece of art, be it a painting, a poem or any other art form.

‘[T]he poet has the whole creation for his range; nor can his art exist without borrowing metaphors, allusions, or descriptions from the face of nature, which is the only fund of great ideas’

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Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

From Volume II, Appendix V. A piece of sheet music entitled Compositions for two piping Bullfinches, accompanied by an extract from the Philosophical Transactions, Vol. LXIII. Experiments and observations on the singing of birds, by the Hon. Daines Barrington.

Victoria Jones

 

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Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

 

 

Thomas Pennant, British Zoology, printed in London for Benjamin White MD CCLXXVII. A gift from William Langford D.D & R. Kilvech. M.T., Prebendaries.

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