Thomas Pennant was born at the family home, Downing in Flintshire, North Wales on 14 June 1726. Following the tradition of the majority of 18th century gentry, he attended an Oxbridge college. He was a member of Queens College, Oxford, but like many of his contemporaries Pennant did not complete his formal training, received no degree but left Oxford with a clear vision of his life's work. Whilst at college he discovered the joy of travel and was affirmed in his love of cataloguing flora, fauna and antiquities of every sort. Pennant was the greatest Welsh travel writer of his time and one of the best British topographical authors, alongside Gilbert White (1720 - 1793) of Selbourne and Francis Grose (1731? - 1791).
He had a gift for befriending and appreciating people which created opportunities at every stage of his career. Correspondents and advisors were constantly and consistently generous to his commissions and requests. It was no accident therefore that he succeeded to involve talented individuals in long term co-operative ventures. He also had the foresight to employ his own illustrators for his works and to collect material for his publications whilst in the region. Pennant was a prolific and untiring scholar whose wide interests influenced his contemporaries and successive scholars.
He knew little Welsh, depending upon his scholar friends such as Reverend John Lloyd, Caerwys (1733 - 1793) to translate and research from original sources. However his respect for Wales, her language, people, history and landscape are evident in all his Welsh writings. He is remembered and celebrated as one of the foremost 18th century Welsh intellectuals and someone who loved and respected his fellow human beings. He was a man of honest and warm humanity whose qualities earned him the title of 'The father of Cambrian tourists.'
The Pennant Collection in the Department of Pictures and Maps consisted of several of his most important and famous works. These include notably the original copies produced for his own use at Downing of Tour in Wales, Tour in Scotland, History of Quadrupeds, History of Whiteford. Each contain many additional 'grangerised' pictures by artists such as Paul Sandby (1725 - 1809), Moses Griffith (1747 - 1819) and John Ingleby (1749 - 1808). There are a large collection of individually mounted watercolours by Moses Griffith, and John Ingleby. Many of these illustrate Wales and were commissioned by Pennant as part of his topographical investigations. Alongside the topographical views is the remainder of the Pennant drawing collection which contains works by Pennant himself (No 2-3), Peter Paillou (No 88 - 89) and other contemporary watercolourists.
Pennant was a collector and patron who showed considerable acumen and intuition. He seldom collected as a connoisseur but rather as a scholar, seeking to obtain some specific visual material for his researches. As a patron he tended to purchase pictures which were directly commissioned from the artist. He employed a full-time artist, Moses Griffith who provided the majority of the illustrations from his various publications and whose drawings were preserved at Downing. Alongside Moses, John Ingleby of Halkin was used extensively, mainly for his fine townscapes and little vignettes. Ingleby was paid on a contract basis whilst Moses received a full salary and accommodation.
Pennant purchased works by some of the best known contemporary topographers. He mentioned in his History of Whitford that Downing possessed several views by Nicholas Pocock (1741? - 1821) of exotic lands such as Iceland and Tibet. Pennant also mentions Peter Paillou's series of climatic landscapes, presumably commissioned, which depicted the divisions of weather pattern: Torrid, Temperature and Frigid zones. Perhaps his most important single commission was the portrait by Thomas Gainsborough (1727 - 1788). Several other members of families from North Wales sat for Gainsborough and the picture is an excellent characterisation of this genteel and civil gentleman.
Pennant created a living collection relevant to his interests. He employed Moses Griffith to execute reduced copies of some historically important images, such as the portrait of Humphrey Llwyd, or Lhuyd, (1527 - 1568) and Catrin of Berain (1534/5 - 1591).
Although he was not amongst the foremost of Welsh collectors his extensive network of correspondents and contacts suggests that he had a wide knowledge of art collections. Sometimes he commented on a painting, for instance at Althorp House, the home of the Spencer family, he remarks in his Notes on Pictures (NLW MS 15436B) 'St. Luke painting a bad Madonna on the easel ... a good Angel'.
In 1789 Horace Walpole (1717 - 1797) the greatest contemporary connoisseur wrote to Pennant from Strawberry Hill (NLW MS 15423C) 'If you have any old Ashes on your Estate Sir, it may amuse you to look if there is any branch beautifully arched. I saw one yesterday at [Sr] George Beaumont's that is wreathed exactly like the most picturesque old grotesques, that probably they were originally taken from Nature'.
He was highly respected, a patron who brought depth and thoroughness to his projects and a man who will be remembered both for his good nature and exceptional achievements.
Thomas Pennant was a prolific author of natural history and topographical works. In his famous autobiography The Literary Life (1793) he states that he sometimes marvelled at his own industry.
Pennant's first book was the 1766 folio, British Zoology. This made a financial loss as it had been printed on paper that was too large. Thereafter all his major works appeared in smaller formats, either octavos or quartos. Further works of natural history appeared over the years including the Synopsis of Quadrupeds, Arctic Zoology, Genera of Birds, and Indian Zoology. Pennant believed in meticulous research and preparation and in the importance of high quality illustrations as an adjunct to his work. Consequently the natural history works were generally well received as were his accounts of tours. The current view of his contribution to natural history is that its importance lies in the fact that he popularized and promoted its study. On the whole he was not a propounder of new theories.
Thomas Pennant's tours and topographic works also display his insistence on detailed research. Fine quality illustrations are again all - important. Among the accounts of tours he published are those of two separate visits to Scotland, a tour from Chester to London, and an account of London itself. His A Tour in Wales (1778-1783) is regarded as being quite outstanding and easily the finest work in a considerable corpus of Welsh tour literature published from ca. 1770 onwards.
Though chiefly remembered for his more substantial works, Pennant also published much ephemeral material, mostly works connected with his duties as a gentleman landowner and magistrate. Most of these pamphlets and single sheets were printed locally but a few came off the press of his friend George Allan, printer and antiquary of Darlington.
Pennant's exceptional industry as an author meant that some works remained unpublished at his death. Of these the most important is the monumental Outlines of the Globe. Two volumes only appeared during his lifetime; two more were subsequently published by his son. The rest of the work, by far the greater part, has never been printed.
It is much to be regretted that Thomas Pennant's library was dispersed at three auction sales in this century. However, by making use of the sale catalogues and other sources a fair idea of its size and scope may be obtained. The Downing library contained in excess of five thousand printed books. It was the working library of a scholar rather than a collection of book amassed for their fine printing or elaborate bindings. Works on topography, travel, and natural history predominated. These were purchased locally, e.g. at Chester, or on Pennant's annual trip to London. Booksellers in various locations acted as agents for him as did several of his scholarly correspondents in Britain and abroad. A significant number of volumes came as presentation copies from their authors. Maps and prints were collected though the library had comparatively few manuscripts, certainly nothing on the scale of the outstanding collections at Hengwrt and Mostyn Hall. Nevertheless Pennant's library must have been among the finest in Wales in its time.
The Pennant oeuvre is extensive and bibliographically complex. His major works, a dozen or so in number, ran to many editions, sometimes with changes of title. Also to be borne in mind are the brief supplements and small selections of additional plates issued between editions as well as the short extracts from the major works that appeared from time to time. Several works had been translated into foreign languages by the time of the author's death; one or two of these are exceptionally rare.
Quite separate from the major natural history and tour books is the considerable body of more ephemeral material, much of it connected with Pennant's own locality. This takes the form of small pamphlets and single sheets.
The National Library has a comprehensive collection of Pennant's printed works. Most editions of the major titles are held as is a fair number of lesser items. Every effort is made to acquire additional material when it becomes available, including volumes from the Downing library bearing notes in Pennant's hand or presented to him by their authors.
Pennant had an overwhelming interest in natural history, and was regarded in his day as a leading zoologist, yet his accounts of his numerous tours reveal far more about the places he visited than would be of interest to a naturalist alone. In addition to descriptions of topography his works are enriched with details and anecdotes about various locations.
It is evident from his writings and his personal papers that Pennant was an energetic and enthusiastic individual who carried out extensive research whilst compiling them. He admits in the manuscript of his autobiographical 'Literary Life' that his ". . . mind was always in a progressive state, it could never stagnate". This extended to all parts of his accounts - natural history, topography and antiquities. The attention to detail can be seen in his research notes and is also reflected in the number of extra-illustrated manuscripts held at the library.
Like many of his contemporaries, Pennant was a polymath. As a prominent member of the North Wales gentry he was well acquainted with men of similar social standing and also counted among his friends members of the rising eighteenth-century middle classes such as the Morris brothers of Anglesey, who shared his interest in natural history and antiquities. He was also acquainted, and corresponded, with other like-minded men in England and Scotland and further afield. Pennant would often entertain guests at Downing by taking them on local excursions, and was accompanied on various tours by his friends. In the 'Literary Life' he recalls a visit he made to the Isle of Man ". . . in company with the reverend doctor Lort, captain Grose, Paul Panton esqr. Junior, of Plas Gwyn . . . and the reverend Hugh Davies, rector of Aber in Caernarvonshire . . .".
The recording of antiquities during his travels was regarded by Pennant as an important means of portraying a country or region. Again, in the 'Literary Life', he notes during his second tour of Scotland, "I pointed out every thing I thought would be of service to the country; it was rouzed to look into its advantages".
His privileged position not only enabled Pennant to undertake the financial burdens of his travels (an account of the costs of his study of natural history can be seen as part of this exhibition); it also afforded him the opportunity of gaining access to generally inaccessible manuscripts and printed works held in distinguished private libraries such as the one at Hengwrt. The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries saw a growing interest in Welsh antiquarian studies, and an increasing number of the gentry were actively collecting manuscripts. Several members of the Mostyn family of Mostyn Hall, Pennant's neighbours and relatives through his marriage to Ann, Sir Thomas Mostyn's daughter, were keen antiquaries and had accumulated a wealth of Welsh manuscripts. Like many people of similar backgrounds, Pennant had very little Welsh, and considering that natural history was his primary interest, it is of no surprise to learn that despite his extensive collection of printed works he possessed far fewer manuscripts than his contemporaries. If we are to assume that the Downing MSS described in the 'Catalogue of North Wales Manuscripts', compiled in 1824 by Aneurin Owen and Angharad Llwyd (Llanstephan MS 162), is a more or less accurate listing of the documents held there towards the end of the previous century, it would appear that Pennant's main interest lay in pedigrees and heraldry. Most of these were acquired following the death of the renowned antiquarian Dafydd Jones of Trefriw. Pennant was fortunate in that he was able to draw on much of this material and his fellow enthusiasts' knowledge of antiquities whilst compiling his travel books, in particular those of his journeys through North Wales which are widely regarded as superior works in their field.
The research notes on various counties in North Wales, an example of which is included in this exhibition, reveal that much of the information Pennant gathered about antiquities was passed on to him by his friends, including the Rev. John Price, librarian at the Bodleian in Oxford, and the Rev. John Lloyd of Caerwys. The latter, especially, was an invaluable source of information on Welsh customs and other antiquities, and was recognised by Pennant as such. Llanstephan MS 162 reveals that Lloyd had a substantial collection of legal, historical and poetic manuscripts about Wales and in the Welsh language.
Pennant was not merely an observer and recorder of antiquities. Following the withdrawal of Sir Watkin Williams-Wynn's patronage, Panton and Pennant organised support for the scholar and antiquarian Evan Evans ('Ieuan Fardd'). The latter had transcribed many manuscripts held in private libraries of the Welsh gentry, and Panton purchased these from him before his death.
In addition to descriptions of places or items which would be of interest to the antiquarian reader, many were also illustrated. Pennant remarks in the 'Literary Life' that Moses Griffith ". . . made some of his most beautiful drawings in the line of antiquity" during their tour in 1776, and goes on to say that, "The public may thank him [Moses Griffith] for numberless scenes and antiquities which would otherwise have remained probably for ever concealed".
Even so, perhaps the most enduring quality in the accounts of Pennant's journeys in the British Isles and on the continent are his detailed topographical and historical notes, and his intimate descriptions of encounters with famous people, such as Voltaire, and the contents of stately homes - thoroughly researched and vividly recorded.
The papers and correspondence of Thomas Pennant are housed in repositories throughout Britain, substantial groups being held at the Flintshire and Warwick record offices. This exhibition, however, consists solely of manuscripts held at the National Library. The majority of Pennant papers in the Department of Manuscripts and Records, the bulk of which are research papers, correspondence and manuscripts of his works, have been incorporated in the main NLW series of manuscripts and are listed in the Handlist of Manuscripts in the National Library of Wales. An additional group of deeds, presented to the Library by the Earl of Denbigh in 1922, which mostly relate to the estates of the Pennant families of Bychton and Downing, are listed separately in the Schedule of Downing Deeds.