Spitting feathers: causing a stir amongst the pages | Library and Archives

There are thousands of books in the Natural History Museum Library, covering the subjects of Zoology, Botany, Entomology, Ornithology and Earth Sciences. A book can often tell a story other than that originally published on its pages. This is the additional story written by one or more owners during its lifetime. Some people add a bookplate, record their name or dedication on the flyleaf when presenting to a loved one, others annotate text with comments or bookmark sections with ephemeral items such as tickets or receipts. Many in a collection such as the Museum Library include relevant additional information added by the owner such as newspaper cuttings, photographs and pressed specimens.

Photo of an ivory miniature portrait of Thomas Pennant from the right side, within an oval shaped medallion.

Thomas Pennant, miniature by Josiah Wedgwood. Image StephenCDickson, CC BY-SA 4.0

Edwin Rose has been using the Museum Library and Archives for research into his PhD. In this blog he highlights one such example, British Zoology by Thomas Pennant.

In 1768 the London publisher, Benjamin White, brother of the famous Selbourne naturalist Gilbert White, published the first two volumes of Thomas Pennant’s British Zoology. This work consists of a systematic list of different animals found in Britain arranged according to the system of animal classification devised by the late seventeenth century naturalist John Ray (1626-1704), reflecting the relative controversies inspired by the introduction of Linnaean classification at this time.[1]

Pennant (1726-98), the primary correspondent of Gilbert White (1720-91), was one of the most famous zoologists of the second half of the Eighteenth century and administered a vast enterprise of collecting and correspondence from his country seat at Downing Hall, Flintshire, North Wales. This work proved to be one of the most widely distributed zoological works of the second half of the eighteenth century, reaching three editions. The first was published between 1768 and 1770, the second in 1776 and the final edition was revised by his son and published in 1812.

The Library of the Natural History Museum holds Pennant’s personal copies of the 1768-70, and 1776 editions. These copies are extensively annotated by Pennant and his son David Pennant (1763-1841), who revised the 1812 edition after his father’s death. Rather than revising manuscripts, they chose to annotate the previous printed editions of these works. This was done through adding new descriptions of previously undescribed species to certain entries, collecting information from a national network of correspondents and amending their descriptions.

A key aspect of revising these works was the accumulation of new information on the different species described. They often collected this information by personally observing different species in the field. This is apparent from one of Thomas Pennant’s hand written descriptions which he attached to his copy of the

1768 edition. This note adds to the printed description of the quail, to which he has appended additional information on the physical features of the species as well as describing the date and location from where this bird was collected: ‘Quail. Belly & thigh of a whitish brown legs pale yellow. Two shot near Mostyn Jun, 22d. 1776’ (see image below).[2] These observations were added to his description in the next edition, showing just how essential the observation of specimens was for naturalists at this time.

1768 edition of of Pennant's British Zoology opened at page 209, the entry for the quail. On the left handside blank page is a hand written note by the Pennant's. It reads 'Quail. Belly & thigh of a whitish brown legs pale yellow. Two shot near Mostyn Jun, 22d. 1776'.

Note written into the 1768 edition ‘Quail. Belly & thigh of a whitish brown legs pale yellow. Two shot near Mostyn Jun 22d. 1776’.

The collection and observation of specimens for eighteenth-century naturalists becomes apparent throughout these books in which, as well as additional textual annotations, the Pennants have incorporated different specimens which they were using to improve their descriptions within these works. These specimens are often pressed opposite the relevant entries in the printed text. In the second volume of the 1768 edition, a number of different feathers can be found between the pages in which he describes the Snipe, a species of water bird (see image below).

1768 edition of Pennant's British Zoology open at page 358, section 7 entitled 'The Snipe'. On the opposite right handside page is blank and two small envelopes have been stuck in. The bottom one has been opened to show two snipe (a waterbird) feathers and a handwritten note which reads 'Four greater converts'. The four has been underlined with a two.

Snipe feathers stored in envelopes and added to the 1768 edition of Pennant’s British Zoology.

Thomas later included a far more detailed description of these different feathers from the Snipe, which included four covert feathers from the tail, two greater covert feathers and four quill feathers, to all of which he attached labels in order to identify the specimen and understand how it relates to the printed text. He conducted a detailed examination of the head and bill of this specimen, features he illustrated in order to supplement the textual description and ensure its place within his system of classification (see image below).

Unfolded sheet which had been added to the annotated 1768 edition of Pennant's British Zoology. At the top of the page is a pencil drawing of the head and bill of a Snipe, side view. Underneath are handwritten notes relating to Thomas Pennant's examination of the snipe.

Thomas Pennant’s examination of the head and bill of a snipe, added to the 1768 edition of Pennant’s British Zoology.

Along with describing the animals they observed and collected Thomas and David Pennant relied upon specimens and descriptions communicated to them through correspondence. Many of the letters and specimens contained within their personal copies of British Zoology were sent by correspondents from around Britain. One of the most notable examples appears in David Pennant’s copy of the 1776 edition, which he was revising for the 1812 edition.

This appears in the form of a folded piece of paper between the pages on the ‘Tawny Bunting’, which Pennant renamed ‘Snow Bunting’ in the 1812 edition. On the front of this paper packet, Pennant has inscribed ‘Wings of Buntings communicated by the rev. H. G. Davies Feb. 1802’, inside which the specimen he received can be found (see image below).[3]

1802 edition of Pennant's British Zoology open at page 327. The envelope inserted inside has been opened to reveal the partial bird specimen held inside. The wing, one incomplete and one complete leg of a Snow Bunting. The wings are white and dark brown in colour and the one full leg and claw are black.

Wings and legs of a Snow bunting held within a folded envelope inside the 1802 edition of Pennant’s British Zoology.

The correspondent mentioned in this notation is the Rev. Hugh Davies (1739-1821) from Beaumaris, Anglesey, a friend and frequent correspondent of the Pennants. Davies regularly sent information and specimens to the Pennants, many of which they used to form their descriptions in the new editions, citing him as one of their main correspondents and sources of information.[4]

A national correspondence network was vital and the Pennants relied on the communication of information on different animals from a range of correspondents throughout the country. One of their most notable correspondents was Sir Joseph Banks (1746-1820). Banks, the naturalist on James Cook’s first voyage to the Pacific Ocean and, from 1778-1820, President of the Royal Society, was one of Thomas Pennant’s most frequent correspondents until a bitter rift occurred between the two of them in 1783. Despite this the Pennants maintained a correspondence with Banks, as evidenced by an unpublished letter from Banks to David Pennant found in his copy of British Zoology (1776) (see image below).

A handwritten letter from Sir Joseph Banks to David Pennant, dated 20 October 1811.

Joseph Banks’s letter to David Pennant, unfolded. 20 October 1811.

This letter, enclosed between the pages which describe the ‘Dolphin’, is dated October 20 1811 and was sent by Banks from his Lincolnshire estate, Revesby Abbey. Banks was evidently responding to a previous letter from David Pennant and, due to him being away from his main library which he kept at 32 Soho Square, London, was unable to give Pennant a full answer to his query regarding  the ‘Beaked whale’.

These letters and specimens show that natural history during the late eighteenth century was a collaborative enterprise.  Naturalists relied on assistance from a range of different correspondents who communicated a mixture of textual information, images and specimens. These communications and personal observations represent how natural history collections and the circulation of specimens were essential for shaping printed works. The case of the Pennant’s personal copies of British Zoology provides a highly pertinent example of how these important publications relied upon these physical objects for the descriptions and images in the printed text, in addition to meticulous research which ensured that they gained a reputation as some of the most respected zoological works of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

[1] Pennant, British Zoology (1776), p. xix.

[2] Mostyn Hall was in close proximity to Pennant’s family seat at Downing.

[3] Pennant’s copy of British Zoology (1776), between pages 326 and 327.

[4] Pennant, British Zoology (1812), p. xx.

Written by Edwin Rose (@EdwinRose3 on Twitter), Natural History Museum Affiliate, (University of Cambridge)

Edwin is currently a PhD student in the History and Philosophy of Science Department at the University of Cambridge. His research is on natural historical libraries from c. 1740-1830, examining the relationship between printed books, book collecting and specimen collections. In this work, he examines the use of natural history books in the field and in the library, particularly in relation to their associated natural history collections, the systematic classification of specimens and publication. The main libraries he is concentrating on are those of Hans Sloane (1660-1753), Thomas Pennant (1726-1798), Gilbert White (1720-93) and Joseph Banks (1743-1820).