Saturday, 9 August 2014


“I can find God in nature, in animals, in birds and the environment.” - Pat Buckley

Thomas Bewick (ca 11 August 1753 – 8 November 1828) was an English engraver and natural history author. Early in his career he took on all kinds of work such as engraving cutlery, making the wood blocks for advertisements, and illustrating children’s books. Gradually he turned to illustrating, writing and publishing his own books, gaining an adult audience for the fine illustrations in ‘A History of Quadrupeds’.

His career began when he was apprenticed to engraver Ralph Beilby in Newcastle upon Tyne. He became a partner in the business and eventually took it over. Apprentices whom Bewick trained include John Anderson, Luke Clennell, and William Harvey, who in their turn became well known as painters and engravers. Bewick is best known for his ‘A History of British Birds’, which is admired today mainly for its wood engravings, especially the small, sharply observed, and often humorous vignettes known as tail-pieces.

He notably illustrated editions of ‘Aesop’s Fables’ throughout his life. He is credited with popularising a technical innovation in the printing of illustrations using wood. He adopted metal-engraving tools to cut hard boxwood across the grain, producing printing blocks that could be integrated with metal type, but were much more durable than traditional woodcuts. The result was high quality illustration at a low price.

Bewick sometimes used his fingerprint as a form of signature, (accompanied by the words “Thomas Bewick his mark”), as well as engraving it in one of his tail-pieces as if it had clouded the tiny image of a rustic scene with a cottage by mistake. Uglow notes one critic’s suggestion that Bewick may have meant we are looking at the scene through a playfully smudged window, as well as drawing our attention to Bewick, the maker. Adrian Searle, writing in The Guardian, describes the tiny work as “A visual equivalent to the sorts of authorial gags Laurence Sterne played in Tristram Shandy, it is a marvellous, timeless, magical joke.”

Bewick’s fame, already nationwide across Britain for his Birds, grew during the nineteenth century. The critic John Ruskin compared the subtlety of his drawing to that of Holbein, J. M. W. Turner, and Paolo Veronese writing that the way Bewick had engraved the feathers of his birds was “...the most masterly thing ever done in woodcutting”, and he became associated with children’s reading thanks to a reference in the first chapter of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. His fame faded as illustration became more widespread and more mechanical, but twentieth-century artists such as Gwen Raverat (née Darwin) continued to admire his skill, and artists such as Paul Nash and Eric Ravilious have been described as reminiscent of Bewick.

Bewick’s illustrated books, admired since they first appeared, gave him some celebrity in his own lifetime. His ‘Memoir’, published a generation after his death, brought about a new interest and a widening respect which has continued to grow ever since. The attraction to his contemporaries of Bewick’s observations lay in their accuracy and amusement. Two centuries later these qualities are still recognised; but so, too, is the wealth and rarity of the historical information they have to offer.

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