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Travelling back in time to 18th century travel writing

Collaboration is key to designing research projects with real impact, as one Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC)-funded project is demonstrating.

Thomas Pennant
Portrait of Thomas Pennant by Thomas Gainsborough, 1776. Copyright: Amgueddfa Cymru–National Museum Wales

The four-year Curious Travellers project has been looking into travel into Wales and Scotland in the eighteenth century, focusing on the writer Thomas Pennant, and will culminate in a major collaborative exhibition that opens on 5 October at Dr Johnson's House in London.

Dr Johnson and Thomas Pennant were contemporaries and both wrote about travel in the United Kingdom.

But while Dr Johnson remains a household name, Pennant - who was widely acclaimed at the time he wrote - has largely been forgotten.

The exhibition presents a long-overdue opportunity to review his work alongside that of another great writer.

“I think from [the curator's] point of view, this was a new angle on Dr Johnson. For us, it was nice to bring the two writers together and celebrate them in the context of one another,” says Dr Mary-Ann Constantine, reader and Curious Travellers project leader at the University of Wales.

Pennant was a gentleman, antiquarian and naturalist from Whitford, Flintshire, who corresponded widely with naturalists all over the world.

In 1769 he came to the conclusion that he knew less about the flora and fauna of Britain than he did about plants and animals from the other side of the world, and so set out to explore more of the United Kingdom.

superimposed routes show Thomas Pennant route
‘A Map of Scotland, The Hebrides, and Part of England, adapted to Mr Pennant’s Tours’,. The superimposed routes show Thomas Pennant’s tour of 1769 (red) and 1772 (blue) and James Boswell. Copyright: London, Benj. White, 1777. Itineraries mapped by Alex Deans and Chris Fleet

Pennant decided to go to Scotland first, which at the time was considered relatively unexplored.

“The book gets a very good reception, and I think he's quite inspired by this,” says Dr Constantine. Plus, his first journey has shown him how much more there was to explore. So, he set off again.”

This time he takes an artist, Moses Griffith, to illustrate his next book, and a Gaelic-speaking botanist. “It was more of a dedicated research team,” says Dr Constantine.

Together they travel through the Western Isles and then Pennant returns to Wales and publishes his second book, which again gets a very good response.

“His appeal seems to have been partly because he spoke to so many people; he interviews extensively and corresponds with a very broad group of people,” says Dr Constantine.

“But it was also because Scotland had only recently become united with England again. A generation previously the two countries had been at war. It was still a very 'foreign' place and English people were extremely curious about it.”

The next year, the great Dr Johnson sets off on his own journey to Scotland.

“He is a very different kettle of fish,” says Dr Constantine. “He is a big 'character' and a great mind. He writes his own opinions. While Pennant is an observer, Dr Johnson applies his own viewpoint. But the two writers complement each other and they are both a great read.”

The contemporary reading public seemed to agree and as a result the 1780s and 90s saw many more people inspired to go on trips to Scotland and Wales.

“Interestingly, in the eighteenth century many critics said of Dr Johnson's travel writing 'it's all very interesting but it's not Thomas Pennant'!,” says Dr Constantine.

“But history has not been kind to him and it's Johnson that is remembered. It's nice to give Pennant another chance.”

The exhibition, put together by the Dr Johnson House Curator, Celine Luppo McDaid, in collaboration with Curious Travellers Co-I Professor Nigel Leask of Glasgow University and PI Dr Constantine, is designed so that visitors will walk through the house with each room telling part of the story.

“The challenge has been to help organise things remotely from Aberystwyth and Glasgow,” says Dr Constantine. “We have travelled down to London a lot. But inevitably a lot has been done by email and over the phone.

“If I've learned one thing it's that you can never be prepared enough! The final few weeks will always be crazy.

“The challenge of condensing the full complexity of your research into a very small number of words on a panel can be difficult, but it's good discipline.”

Dr Constantine advises anyone attempting a similar project to work with an experienced curator, if at all possible. For example, she says she was warned against using a particular green font in the exhibition booklet because it would present accessibility problems for people with bad eyesight.

“Without Celine’s expert help we would never have known that to be an issue,” she says.

Dr Johnson’s House was also able to help with publicity by reaching out to their mailing list and encouraging them to get involved. “We doubled our reach overnight,” says Dr Constantine.

“Public access is very important to us and so all opportunities to learn how to do it better are very valuable to us.

“This has been a good way to reach 'enthusiasts', people who are interested in writing from this period, but who may not have heard of Pennant.

“It is also important for us to get people from Scotland, England and Wales to think more about their relationships with each other - particularly at a time when the United Kingdom is under pressure from devolution.

“It's been wonderful so far and we are all looking forward to welcoming the public to the exhibition.”

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