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Vintage books: The Wonder Book of Nature

September 19, 2013,8.9.13-4

Do you remember this lovely old book I found in the bookshop at Pitlochry station? I promised to show you some of its illustrations. I’m so glad I bought it. In odd moments I have dipped into it, marvelling that anyone could give it away.

There was a period around the turn of the last century, say circa 1890 to as late as 1920 or after, when books as physical objects became things of great beauty. The Arts and Crafts Movement was, I suppose, largely to thank for the care given to the design of covers, end-papers and clear, elegant typeface.  Coincidental with this improvement in design came an outpouring of didactic publications which seem to reflect the scientific optimism of the times.

This book is an example of that spirit. It is one of a series of ‘Wonder Books’ written with youngish children in mind, published around a century ago. In the form of a series of short essays on various aspects of the natural world, it flits from subject to subject with rather endearing distraction. Isn’t Nature wonderful! Everything is fascinating! So the story of the salmon’s journey upstream is followed by a chapter on ‘Wonders of the Microscope; ‘Trees You Should Know’ tumbles on the heels of a piece about rattlesnakes and another called ‘Tails And Their Uses’. There are notes and essays on Mount Vesuvius, crocodile farms, grasses, ‘The Cleverness of Insects’, the seashore, spiders, dormice and ‘The Romance of the Palm Tree’.  Plus all sorts of others. It’s a delight to dip into, a book for the short attention span and wide enthusiasm of children – and some adults.

'A New Specimen' by Margaret Tarrant, from 'The Wonder Book of Nature'

‘A New Specimen’ by Margaret Tarrant, from ‘The Wonder Book of Nature’


As far as the illustrations are concerned,  they are striking both in quantity and quality. Almost every page has black and white photographs, while the dozen colour plates are by well-known artists of the day, such as Margaret Tarrant (above),  Arthur Wardle and Lilian Cheviot.

Margaret Tarrant is perhaps best known for her fairy paintings and her exquisite watercolours of Christian subjects: her illustrations are still to be found reproduced on Christmas cards. She illustrated many books, including children’s prayer books and the early 20th century edition of ‘Alice in Wonderland’ which is the one I remember from childhood.,18.9.13-1


Lilian Cheviot was chiefly known as an animal artist: her canine portraits in particular could be very good, but her work tended to stray into the sort of late-Victorian whimsy (puppies watching ducklings, Scottie dogs in tartan bonnets) which is rather sickly to modern tastes. Her big-eyed Highland cattle in this book are a case in point.


Lillian Cheviot, 'Highland Cattle'

Lillian Cheviot, ‘Highland Cattle’, from ‘The Wonder Book of Nature’


Arthur Wardle shared the period’s weakness for whimsy, but was known for his fine paintings both of African wildlife and of domestic dogs. Since I have recently had a wonderful day up on the heather moorland, I make no apology for showing you another heathery picture after the highland cattle: Wardle’s watercolour of setters on the moor looks remarkably like the scenes I saw on the hill last week.


Arthur Wardle, 'A Brace of Setters', from 'The Wonder Book of Nature'

Arthur Wardle, ‘A Brace of Setters’, from ‘The Wonder Book of Nature’

Compare and contrast: the real thing last week

Compare and contrast: the real thing last week


Don’t let me give the impression that the pictures are confined to picturesque Britain, however. The photos, in particular, cover a huge variety of noteworthy aspects of the natural world, from coconut-collecting,


'Native boys climbing coco-nut palms, Porto Rico', from 'The Wonder Book of Nature'

‘Native boys climbing coco-nut palms, Porto Rico’, from ‘The Wonder Book of Nature’


to micro-organisms.

'The Wonders of the Microscope' from 'The Wonder Book of Nature'

‘The Wonders of the Microscope’ from ‘The Wonder Book of Nature’

Finally, however, the endpapers bring us back to the more whimsical style of the illustrators. After all that hard science, these line-drawings of the four seasons (British seasons, naturally) take us back into the world of flower fairies. I think they are charming.

Endpapers, 'Autumn' from 'The Wonder Book of Nature'

Endpapers, ‘Autumn’ from ‘The Wonder Book of Nature’


‘All young people agree’, advises the book on the front page, ‘that there is no present for Christmas or the Birthday to equal the Wonder Book.’ Hear hear.


Another nature book of this period can be glimpsed here.

16 Comments leave one →
  1. Lisbeth permalink
    September 19, 2013 1:11 am

    My son and I were looking at “The Wonder Book of Engineering” just last night. They are fabulous books and would love to find more!

    • September 19, 2013 12:27 pm

      What a coincidence! I am rather taken by the idea of ‘The Wonder Book of Empire’. That would be a real period piece.

  2. boyd hussey, (Douglas Ontario Canada) permalink
    September 19, 2013 1:21 am

    idoidoido…remember this book and it’s wonderful illustrations. when i was small most of our books came from Britain. the Americans having not yet embarked on their northern quest. that book or at least the illustrations sparked a life-long love of Highland Cattle. Do youremember the delicious smell of the bindings in British books. it must have been the glue. i was addicted to that smell and to this day i will sniff a book as soon as i open it.

    • September 19, 2013 12:31 pm

      Funny, I had not seen this book before but that picture of the Highland cattle felt instantly familiar to me too. There was quite a vogue for such paintings in the late Victorian period, and you can still find large oil paintings of picturesque Highland cattle in Scottish big houses and shooting lodges.

      And hail to a fellow book-sniffer! I love the smell of books too, whether brand new, vintage or truly venerable (a different smell) like the 16th Century tomes I sometimes used as a post-grad student.

  3. writeejit permalink
    September 19, 2013 1:42 am

    What amazing books/illustrations. Thanks for sharing.

  4. September 19, 2013 2:53 pm

    Simply wonderful. (And the setter pictures!)

  5. hmunro permalink
    September 19, 2013 7:45 pm

    When you first mentioned this book, I wished desperately to be see more of it. Thank you for granting my wish, DB! The illustrations are stunning, indeed — but your thoughtful, wry and well-informed commentary helped me appreciate them even more. Thank you, thank you.

    • September 19, 2013 11:39 pm

      It’s such a pleasure to share a delicious old book with fellow bibliophiles. Although there is some irony, is there not, in our sharing of books through electronic media?! You can’t smell ’em on the internet – at least, not until someone invents scratch’n’sniff web pages. 😀

  6. September 20, 2013 11:24 am

    This looks like a real treasure! I’d like to think it might have inspired its young readers to go on and become scientists or naturalists. I love the Flower Fairies books, too – I still have some, somewhere!

    • September 20, 2013 11:39 pm

      I have loved the Flower Fairies books since I was first given one as a school prize in Primary 1. The illustrations are so charming (and her ability to draw children is so great) that I don’t think I’ll ever grow out of them.

  7. September 23, 2013 6:48 pm

    Oh, gorgeous! I did enjoy that. 🙂 Though I don’t have The Wonder Book of Nature, I too have a number of books from the 1890s to the 1920s which I inherited from my mother (her childhood books) and my grandfather. Most of them have just these types of binding and illustrations and I treasure them.

    • September 23, 2013 11:03 pm

      How lovely. I hope to show a few more from that same period, which mostly belonged to my husband’s great-grandmother. Perhaps we shall find a few in common!

  8. September 23, 2013 10:03 pm

    …a fan here too. My father in law gave us a set of similar books in German just recently. Just wobderful.
    But above all, I like the flapping ears of the “Real Thing”!

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