Books about animals and nature were common in the 19th century and had been popular with children since the medieval period. Natural science was considered to be a suitable subject for children to study, since animals, as part of God’s creation, merited close examination. In addition, moral and religious teaching could be combined with pictures to hold young readers’ attention.
The beasts depicted here are an eclectic mix of the everyday and the exotic. Even for children who lived in towns and cities, the countryside was close; so, for example, the fox, rabbit and carthorse would probably have been be familiar to young readers.
Fewer people would have seen lions and tigers. In the 18th century, the Tower of London had housed the Royal Menagerie, which was the subject of some early children’s books. But in the early 19th century there were few if any public places in Britain where the public could see wild and exotic animals, until the Zoological Gardens opened in Regents Park, London in 1828. Perhaps as a result many early animal illustrations were startlingly inaccurate. The ones shown here, though, are good representations, suggesting either that the unnamed illustrator had seen these animals in person or was able to copy them from existing books or prints.