Whether they know it or not, most Americans and Canadians have seen the works of Thomas Bewick. His small, intriguing, seemingly anonymous wood engravings have been reproduced so many timesin books and magazines, on pieces of advertising ephemera, and on greeting cardsthat they have become practically invisible. Yet these modest images were once revolutionary, a contradiction that Jenny Uglow explores in the engaging biography Nature’s Engraver: A Life of Thomas Bewick.
Bewick was born on August 10 or 11, 1753, near the village of Eltringham in the northeastern English county of Northumberland. The River Tyne runs beside the village, and the Scottish border lies just a few miles north. Growing up on his parents’ farm of Cherryburn, Bewick was a rowdy boy who might have come to nothing had the Reverend Christopher Gregson, who ran a school in nearby Ovingham, not taken him under his wing.
It was while he was in school that Bewick began to pursue what had already become his two overriding interestsdrawing and nature. He also began to turn against the crueler aspects of “sport” as enjoyed by his neighbors. A particular incident that stuck in Bewick’s memory illustrates both the tenor of the times and the boy’s developing attitudes. He had caught a panic-stricken hare that was being chased by dogs and turned it over to a farmer who promised to protect it. Instead, the farmer broke one of the animal’s legs and set it loose again to give the dogs a few more minutes’ enjoyment.
When he was fourteen, Bewick was apprenticed to jeweler and engraver Ralph Beilby, who lived upriver in the bustling town of Newcastle upon Tyne. Significantly enough, the last drawing he made before leaving home showed a horse tethered to a tree. Although the apprenticeship allowed Bewick to learn the basics of engraving on copper and silver, he felt that he was being denied the opportunity to learn the finer points of the craft. The young man also found his master somewhat overbearing. By this time, however, he had developed an interest in engraving on wood, a technique that he would eventually transform into an art.
Bewick and his contemporaries had grown up with woodcuts, crude images produced from cutting designs into pieces of wood along the grain. Bewick’s particular achievement lay in producing “wood engravings” on the end of the block of wood, cut across the grain. This technique allowed for much finer detail, particularly since Bewick used precision metalworking tools that he himself had adapted.
At the time, Great Britain was experiencing an increasing demand for books and a growing sophistication in popular taste. Bewick capitalized on these trends by seeking out a broad range of models for his engravings, many from the Continent, and many by such noted artists as Albrecht Dürer. Although he remained apprenticed to Ralph Beilby until 1774, Bewick established a reputation in the printing world and was soon commanding handsome prices for his little blocks of wood. Among the first important books that he illustrated were an edition of The New Lottery Book of Birds and Beasts (1771) and a version of Aesop’s fables. A more ambitious and sophisticated project, undertaken by Newcastle printer Thomas Saint, was an edition of Fables by the Late Mr. Gay (1778). The “Mr. Gay” in question was versifier Thomas Gay.
Newcastle bookbinder Gilbert Gray was to have a profound influence on Bewick. During his apprentice days, Bewick spent evenings and early mornings reading through Gray’s collection of books. He also absorbed much of the radical philosophy of Gray’s circle of friends and apprentices, signing a petition against the conflict that Americans know as the Revolutionary War. In 1776, Bewick visited Scotland, whose freedom-loving...
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