Bewick, William (DNB00)

BEWICK, WILLIAM (1796–1866), portrait and historical painter, was born at Darlington 20 Oct. 1795. His father was an upholsterer, his mother a beautiful Quakeress, The surroundings in the staid and money-making Durham town were not favourable to art aspirations, and had it not been for an aunt who lived near Barnard Castle, young Bewick's gifts might have remained undeveloped. As it was, her store of legend and her collection of curiosities stimulated his imagination, and when he left school to enter his father's business, it was decreed that he should be a painter. He devoted all his spare time to sketching and taking portraits, gained some furtive instruction from wandering artists, and by the time he was seventeen had accumulated the orthodox portfolio of productions. Then he drifted into oil-painting under the auspices of an artistic jack-of-all-trades named George Marks, and ultimately, afire with enthusiasm for London and its wider opportunities, started at twenty for the metropolis, carrying with him (like Romney) the slender savings of his pencil. He was luckier than most youthful adventurers, Haydon, whom he had learned to admire in his northern home, received him gratuitously as a pupil, and with the fortunes of that unfortunate man he became more or less identified. From 1817 to 1820 he was daily in Haydon's studio. His master employed him in making copies of the Elgin marbles for Goethe, and inspired him with his own passion for the grandiose and historic. One of Bewick's pictures, 'Una in the Forest,' was exhibited at Spring Gardens in 1820; in 1822, 'Jacob and Rachel,' a large composition which Haydon particularly admired, followed it at the British Institution, and other ambitious works were projected. His skill as a copyist was remarkable, and he excelled in reproducing Rembrandt. At Haydon's he met many contemporary literary celebrities, Wordsworth, Ugo Foscolo, Hazlitt, Shelley, Keats, and others. He also visited Scott at Abbotsford, and has left a delightful description of the yet 'Great Unknown' in the freedom of his own fireside.

In 1824-5 Berwick went back to Darlington, where he found ready employment as a portrait-painter. In 1826 Sir Thomas Lawrence sent him to Rome to copy, among other things, Michael Angelo's Prophets and Sibyls in the Sistine Chapel. These copies were exhibited in 1840 at Bewick's house in George Street, Hanover Square. He returned to England in 1829, settling again in London. In 1839 and 1840 he exhibited at the Academy. Finally, his health failing,he retired to some property he possessed at Haughton-le-Skerne, near Durham. He still continued to paint a little, and in 1843 took part in the Westminster Hall cartoon competition, sending up a 'Triumph of David.' The last twenty years of his life were passed in comparative seclusion. He died 8 June 1860. His artistic promise was greater than his performance. He is best known in his native county, and his chief successes were as a copyist and portrait-painter; but his reminiscences of men and events, as given in his letters and autobiographic sketches, by their penetration, vivacity, and graphic power, seem to indicate that he might have acquired a greater reputation by the pen than by the pencil.

[Thomas Landseer's Life and Letters of William Bewick (artist), 1871.]

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