Thomas Pennant is one of those authors who seem to remain popular and relevant. His prose is beautifully crafted, so that he is often quoted. In fact he is probably best known at second hand rather than first.
As a polymath, Pennant was one of the classic 18th century scholar gentlemen who could spend their energies researching and discovering, visiting and touring, writing and reading. His was an almost scholastic existence of gathering information and publishing findings.
The Library recently acquired a letter by Pennant written on 17 August 1764, (NLW MS 24045F) we are not certain who was the recipient, but evidently one of his scholarly circle. This letter allows us a rare insight to Pennant’s life, which is worth noting and exploring. His first wife died in 1764 and this letter represents his response to a friend, as he recovers an interest in collecting and sharing information.
Remarkable is the amount and the detail of material that he was able and willing to share. The writer also shows us how drawings were shared on particular subjects and how he promoted and expanded his publishing interests. Pennant is seen, through this letter, as a person full of ideas and energy; with a clear vision and focus in his work. Another point of real significance is that he notes that that the previous year he had offered to purchase ‘a certain number of original drawings… which are to be sold for a quarter of their original value’. Pennant was one of the great 18th century collectors of drawings, certainly within Wales maybe the person who safeguarded some of the most important works on paper of Welsh antiquities and landscape.
But why do we purchase one letter? It forms part of a much larger body of material written by Pennant and it adds a sense of the urgency with which he undertook his research. Seeing the handwritten text with crossing out and smudges gives us a sense of the process of thinking: Pennant wrote with ease and confidence, thinking as he composed his prose, so we get the feeling of something fresh and alive. We are witness to his life as a gatherer of facts and material: always on the look -out for new things.
Pennant’s letter, written in the summer of 1764, opens a window on the life and work of one of our most influential authors of topography and wildlife. It sends us a message, that even in adversity, the person who is determined can overcome their circumstances and develop their career successfully. Yes, he had vast resources, but he also had the will to learn which we can all acquire and nurture.
To coincide with the exhibition “The Secret workings of Nature: Robert Hooke and early science” a lecture entitled “Thomas Pennant: the leading British zoologist after Ray and before Darwin” will be given by Dr Paul Evans at the Library on Wednesday September 2nd at 1:15 p.m.