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James Tennant

James Tennant was born at Upton in Southwell, Nottinghamshire, England on February 8, 1808. His family later removed to Derby. James was partly educated at a school in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, and in October 1824, aged 16, he was apprenticed as "shop boy" to the mineral dealer John Mawe in London. Tennant continued his education through classes at the Mechanic's Institution, and learned much from the mineral collector and gemologist Sir Everard Home, retired physician to the King. But it was his attendance at chemistry lectures given by Michael Faraday at the Royal Institution that gave his career the biggest boost. Impressed with his young student, Faraday later recommended him for the post of teacher in geological mineralogy at King's College, London and he was duly appointed in 1838 as assistant to Professor Philips, later becoming Professor of Mineralogy. In 1853 he became Professor of Geology himself at King's College. Tennant resigned the geology post in 1869, on being hired as curator of the mineral collection of the Baroness Angela Burdett-Coutts (1814-1906)(q.v.), but he retained the mineralogical professorship all his life. His devotion to teaching and to the promotion of technical education, often at his own expense, was fondly recalled in all his obituaries.

When John Mawe died in 1829, his wife Sarah continued the business with Tennant as manager until selling out to him entirely in February 1840, when she retired. Tennant lived on the premises for the rest of his life. He became "Mineralogist to Her Majesty" in the same year he took over Mawe's business, a title formerly held by Sarah Mawe. His only known task in this unusual role was superintending the recutting of the Koh-i-Noor diamond from the Crown Jewels in 1852. Minerals were only a part of a much larger trade for Tennant. He described himself as an "importer of shells, minerals & ornamental works of art, manufacturer of Derbyshire spar & marble ornaments." Tennant was elected a Fellow of the Geological Society in 1838, and of the Zoological Society in 1849; he was president of the Geological Association 1862-3. Tennant was the author or co-author of several useful mineralogy and geology texts. These, his teaching, and his quiet but liberal support for education seem to have been his principal legacy. Although the range of material he offered was notable, he was not an important supplier of individual specimen minerals. Boxed educational sets comprise most of the known Tennant minerals today--the more expensive ones containing excellent specimens. Individually labeled Tennant mineral specimens are very rare, as are Tennant labels in general.

In 1876 he advertised his personal collections of minerals and fossils for sale. Among the other collections on offer was one originally belonging to Sarah Mawe and containing specimens from her husband John, including gold nuggets illustrated in his 1812 Travels in the interior of Brazil. In 1880, aged 72, Tennant planned to retire, and advertised his stock for sale at knock-down prices in sets "adapted to the young Amateur as well as the more advanced Student." Unfortunately, before he could rest from a lifetime of service to mineralogy and geology he died, on 23 February 1881, 2 weeks after his 73rd birthday, and his stock-in-trade was sold by order of his executors. It took Stevens Auction Rooms at least 12 sales to 5 May 1882 to disperse his huge stock, some apparently being sold directly from Tennant's Strand shop. At the time of Tennant's death his mineral collection was held in a Mahogany Cabinet with a glass case on the top and 45 drawers underneath covered with glass. His 2,600 mineral specimens included "many of the select portions of the Duke of Buckingham's, Sir John St Aubyn's, and other historical collections ... well labeled; and the specimens very choice." Its fate is unknown.

COOPER, M. (2006) Robbing the Sparry Garniture; A 200-Year History of British Mineral Dealers. Mineralogical Record, Tucson (in press).
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[Citation format for this entry:
WILSON, Wendell E. (2019)
Mineralogical Record
Biographical Archive, at]
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The Mineralogical Record - James Tennant James Tennant
The Mineralogical Record - James Tennant 65 x 86 mm,
Elaborately engraved, very rare Tennant mineral label.
The Mineralogical Record - James Tennant 64 x 86 mm,
Reverse side of the label shown above.
The Mineralogical Record - James Tennant 40 x 42 mm,
Tennant label from a folder of fossil drawings (Roy Starkey collection)
The Mineralogical Record - James Tennant Tennant's 100-specimen boxed set, dated June 6, 1869. Uli Burchard collection and photo.
The Mineralogical Record - James Tennant Tennant's 100-specimen boxed set dated June 6, 1969. Uli Burchard collection and photo.
The Mineralogical Record - James Tennant Tennant's 100-specimen boxed set dated February, 1879. Uli Burchard collection and photo.
The Mineralogical Record - James Tennant A drawer from Tennant's 100-specimen boxed set dated February, 1879. Uli Burchard collection and photo.
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