Vintage books: The Wonder Book of Nature
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,
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.
‘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.