Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Bewick, Thomas
BEWICK, THOMAS (1763–1828), wood engraver, was born in August 1753, at Cherryburn House, on the south bank of the Tyne, in the parish of Ovingham, Northumberland. Part of the old cottage still exists as 'byre' or cowhouse to a more modern Cherryburn, yet occupied by his descendants. His father, John Bewick, was a small farmer, who also rented a land-sale colliery (i.e. a colliery the coals of which are sold on the spot to persons in the neighbourhood) at Mickley, close by his mother, John Bewick's second wife, came of a Cumberland family. Her maiden name was Jane Wilson. She bore John Bewick eight children, of whom Thomas was the eldest, and John [see Bewick, John] the fifth. Another son, William, and five daughters completed the family. Young Bewick first went to school at Mickley. Then, two successive preceptors there having died, he was placed under the care of the Rev. Christopher Gregson of Ovingham, whose church and rectory, though in the same parish as Cherryburn, lay on the opposite or northern side of the Tyne. His schooldays were undistinguished; but he seems to have acquired some little knowledge of Latin, and better still of English. In the characteristic autobiography published by his eldest daughter Jane in 1862, and hereafter referred to as the 'Memoir,' is a good account of his boyhood. He there appears as a fairly mischievous but not vicious lad, delighting in all sorts of youthful escapades. Already, however, he gave evidence of two tastes which strongly coloured his after life, a love of drawing, and a love of nature. Like Hogarth's, his 'exercises when at school were more remarkable for the ornaments which adorned them, than for the exercise itself.' After exhausting the margins of his books, he had recourse to the flagstones and hearth of his home, or the floor of the church porch at Ovingham, which he covered with devices in chalk. He studied the inn signs and the rude knife-cut prints then to be found in every farm or cottage, records of victories by sea and land, portraits of persons famous or notorious,
ballads, pasted on the wall,
Of Chevy Chace and English Moll,
Fair Rosiimond. and Robin Hood,
The little Children in the Wood.
Then, by the kindness of a friend, after a probation of pen and ink and blackberry-juice, he passed to a paint brush and colours, and began to copy the animal life about him. 'I now, in the estimation of my rustic neighbours, became an eminent painter, and the walls of their houses were ornamented with an abundance of my rude productions, at a very cheap rate. These chiefly consisted of particular hunting scenes, in which the portraits of the hunters, the horses, and of every dog in the pack, were, in their opinion, as well as my own, faithfully delineated ' (Memoir, pp. 7, 8). Meanwhile the love of nature, which was born in him, grew and gathered strength. Some of the most delightful pages of his autobiography are those which recall his delight in the change of seasons, with their varied feathered visitors, in angling and field-sports, in the legends, tales, and strange characters of his birth-place. Then came the rude breaking-up of all the pleasant country life. His taste for drawing determined the choice of his calling, and on 1 Oct. 1767 he was apprenticed to a Newcastle engraver, Mr. Ralph Beilby [q. v.] The 'Memoir' describes the parting with Cherryburn in a characteristic passage: 'I liked my master; I liked the business; but to part from the country, and to leave all its beauties behind me, with which I had been all my life charmed in an extreme degree—and in a way I cannot describe—I can only say my heart was like to break; and as we passed away I inwardly bade farewell to the whinny wilds, to Mickley bank, to the Stobcross hill, to the water banks, the woods, and to particular trees, and even to the large hollow old elm which had lain perhaps for centuries past on the haugh near the ford we were about to pass. and which had sheltered the salmon fishers while at work there from many a bitter blast' (p. 51).
In 1767, when Bewick went to Newcastle as an apprentice, the art of wood engraving had fallen into comparative disuse. For a long time previously, in truth, it can scarcely be said to have existed, except in its ruder forms. Tasteless emblematical ornaments and tail-pieces, diagrams and rough designs for magazines, illustrations of an elementary character for a few books like Croxall's 'Fables of Æsop,' together with the coarse knife-cut prints and broadsides already referred to, made up the chief examples. In 1760 Hogarth had attempted to substitute wood for copper in engraving the last two plates of the 'Progress of Cruelty;' but the attempt, though exceedingly meritorious, was not successful financially. So low, in short, was the condition of tie art, that Walnole, writing about 1770 of Papillon's recently published 'Traité historique et pratique de la Gravure en Bois,' expressed a doubt whether that author would ever, as he wished, 'persuade the world to return to wooden cuts.
If this was the state of wood engraving in London, it was naturally lower at Newcastle. Mr. Ralph Beilby's business, indeed, was of a most miscellaneous character. He engraved pipe-moulds, bottle-moulds, brass clock-faces, coffin-plates, stamps, seals, bill-heads, crests, and ciphers. Young Bewick's first occupation on entering the establishment was to copy Copeland's 'Ornaments' as an exercise in drawing. From this he was set to etch sword-blades, and block out the wood about the lines on diagrams for the popular almanac known as the 'Ladies' Diary,' then edited by a Newcastle schoolmaster, afterwards the great Dr. Hut ton of Woolwich. He also prepared the cuts to Hutton's 'Treatise on Mensuration,' published by Saint in 1770, and, besides giving great satisfaction, is said to have shown some ingenuity in devising a double-pointed graver which was exceedingly useful in this particular work. Soon he was entrusted with most of Beilby's wood-engraving business, and executed several bill-heads which were highly approved. Then commissions for cuts for children's books began to be received, the chief employer being the Newcastle Newbery, Thomas Saint. The first efforts of this kind with which Bewick can be directly associated are the 'new invented Horn Book' and the 'New Lottery-Book of Birds and Beasts,' 1771. After these come the 'Child's Tutor, or Entertaining Preceptor,' 1772; the 'Moral Instructions of a Father to his Son,' 1772; and the 'Youth's Instructive and Entertaining Story Teller,' 1774. To the last Bewick himself refers in the Memoir' (p. 60), and his daughter acknowledged that he engraved the illustrations to the 'Moral Instructions' (Select Fables, Pearson's Reprint, p. xiii). It is not necessary, however, to linger on these merely tentative efforts, which he subsequently so greatly excelled. Before the end of his apprenticeship he had completed some cuts for 'Gay's Fables,' which were of far superior quality. So good were they considered by honest Mr. Beilby that he sent five blocks to the Society of Arts, who, in 1775, awarded a premium of seven guineas to the engraver. One of the five was the 'Hound and the Huntsman,' illustrating Gay's forty-fourth fable.
On 1 Oct. 1774 Bewick's period of apprenticeship terminated. After a few weeks le returned to Cherryburn, where he continued to work on his own account. In 1776 he made a pedestrian tour to the north, and in the same year started for London. Here he speedily found employment with an engraver named Cole, with Isaac Taylor, with Thomas Hodgson, the printer and publisher, and others. But London did not suit the sturdy Northumbrian, strongly attached to his birthplace and hungering for country sights and sounds. After brief trial he left London again for Newcastle, and shortly afterwards entered into partnership with his old master, Beilby.
For many years after his apprenticeship had come to an end, wood engraving seems to have been the exception rather than the rule of Bewick's work—the general business of the firm being of the indiscriminate character already described. Among other illustrated books attributed to this period are several that have attained an importance with collectors to which they are scarcely entitled. Such are 'Tommy Trip's History of Beasts and Birds,' 1779, which is supposed to have been a first draught of the more famous 'Quadrupeds' and 'Birds,' and the 'Lilliputian Magazine,' published by Carnan, Newbery's successor, but probably printed earlier at Newcastle. In both cases the letterpress is traditionally supposed to have been by Goldsmith, but the tradition is incapable of proof. The works which most deserve attention between 1774 and 1784 are the 'Gay's Fables' of 1779 and 'Select Fables' of 1784, both of which were printed and published by Saint of Newcastle. As already stated, the illustrations to the former had been begun during Bewick's apprenticeship. Many of these illustrations are plainly based upon the earlier copper plates designed by Kent, Wootton the animal painter, and H. Gravelot, for Tonson's and Knapton's editions issued in 1727 and 1738 respectively. In most cases Bewick distinctly improves upon his model, in some he breaks away from it altogether, e.g. in 'The Man, the Cat, the Dog, and the Fly,' and the 'Squire and his Cur,' which are little pictures in genre. The 'Select Fables,' now very rare, is an advance upon the Gay. It was an expansion of an earlier book of 1776 with ruder engravings from Bewick's hand, and this again was an offshoot from the before-mentioned 'Moral Instructions' of 1772. It has sometimes been denied that these earlier cuts were Bewick's, but without going minutely into the evidence the point may now be taken as established. The 'Select Fables' of 1784 was an improved issue of this book of 1776, the majority of the illustrations being designed afresh with greater finish and elaboration, and only thirteen of the best of the old cuts being reproduced. Following his practice in the Gay, Bewick seems to have again depended rather upon his predecessors than himself, most of the cuts being based upon those of the unknown illustrator of the 'Fables of Æsop and Others,' translated by Samuel Croxall, sometime archdeacon of Hereford, of which, between 1722 and 1776, there had been no less than ten editions. But even Croxall's illustrator does not appear to have been the originator of the plates, as some of them are plainly copied from Sebastian le Clerc, while others again have their prototypes in the fine old folio Æsop of Francis Barlow, published as far back as 1665. Bewick, however, probably knew little of Barlow and le Clerc, and only aimed at the modernisation and improvement of Croxall. In this he thoroughly succeeded, substituting more accurate studies of animals and more natural arrangements of detail and background. As before, his own special designs (e.g. the 'Hounds in Couples,' the 'Beggar and his Dog,' the 'Collier and the Fuller') are superior to the rest, and already foreshadow the thoroughly individual talent of the tail-pieces to the 'Quadrupeds' and 'Birds.' In fact, in altering and modernising Wootton and the rest, Bewick had graduated as a designer, and the discipline seems to have been his best academic training. Before parting with the Gay and 'Select Fables,' it should be added that their beauties can only be adequately appreciated in the very rare originals. In Emerson Chamley's so-called 'Select Fables ' issued at Newcastle in 1820, a vamped-up volume which included many of the cuts from Gay and other sources, the original blocks, according to Hugo (Bewick Collector, i. 147), haa been 'much altered, and certainly not improved ' by Bewick's pupil Charlton Nesbit. From these the more modern reprints are naturally derived.
With the publication of the 'Select Fables' it had become manifest that there had arisen and engraver who, to singular technical dexterity, added an unexampled appreciation of the qualities and limitations ot wood as a medium for the reproduction of designs. It was also clear that, besides being an engraver, he was, in his own way, an artist of remarkable capacity as a faithful interpreter of animal life, and a genuine humourist of a sub-Hogarthian type. All that he now required was a field in which he might adequately exhibit either side of his pictorial character. In the illustrations to the 'Quadrupeds' and 'Birds' he found opportunities for both.
The 'Quadrupeds' were begun soon after the publication of the 'Select Fables.' But while working at them Bewick produced the large block known as the 'Chillingham Bull,' 1789, one of the famous wild cattle which Landseer has painted and Scott has sung in the ballad of 'Cadyow Castle.' This, when it appeared, was Bewick's best and most ambitious work, though he excelled it in his subsequent efforts. An accident which made early impressions extremely rare has, however, given it a fictitious value with collectors. After a few copies had been struck off on parchment and paper, the block split, and though, by repairing it and fixing it in a gun-metal frame, it was found possible to take impressions, they have, naturally, never acquired the importance which attaches to those struck off before the accident, one, at least, of which has fetched as much as fifty guineas. The 'General History of Quadrupeds' was begun in 1785, Bewick executing the cuts and vignettes after working hours, and his partner, Mr. Beilby, who was 'of a bookish or reading turn,' undertaking the letterpress. It was published in 1790, and sold rapidly. A second and third edition appeared in 1791 and 1792 respectively, and by 1824 an eighth edition had been reached. Generally speaking, those animals with which Bewick had been familiar in their native haunts were admirably rendered ; but where- he had to depend upon stuffed specimens or the representations of earlier artists, the result is scarcely so satisfactory. The 'Badger' and the 'Hedgehog,' for example, are unimpeachable ; the 'Bison' and 'Hippopotamus' are poor and unsuggestive.
It was probably some sense of this inequality which determined the subject of Bewick's next effort, the 'History of British Birds.' In this case he was much less likely to meet with difficulties in the way of obtaining an accurate idea of his subject, and frequently might either work directly from life or from newly shot specimens. His determination, in fact, in his own words, was 'to stick to nature as closely as he could' (Memoir, p. 164). The result, as may be seen from some of the beautiful water-colour drawings given to the British Museum by Miss Isabella Bewick in 1882, fully justified the wisdom of this resolve. The first volume, the 'Land Birds,' was published in 1797. The text, as before, was by Beilby, largely amended and edited by Bewick himself. The second volume, the 'Water Birds,' followed in 1804, the text this time being supplied by the Rev. Mr. Cotes, of Bedlington, Bewick's partnership with Beilby having been dissolved. To both volumes large additions were made in the succeeding issues, both in the way of illustrations and vignettes. In the eighth edition of 1847, published by Bewick's son [see Bewick, Robert Elliot], the book was rearranged by Mr. John Hancock, a Newcastle naturalist, to suit the nomenclature and classification of Temminck, and some twenty further vignettes were added from a projected 'History of British Fishes' left unfinished at Bewick's death.
The 'Birds' are Bewick's high-water mark, As we have said, the conditions under which he worked were wholly favourable to his realistic genius. He was his own artist, and he was his own engraver; he was called upon to copy faithfully rather than to divine or reconstruct; and he loved his subject with that absorbing passion which makes even the dullest sense intelligent. Hence, to repeat some words we have used elsewhere, his birds, and especially those which he had seen and studied in their sylvan homes, are alive. 'They swing on boughs, they light on wayside stones; they flit rapidly through the air; they seem almost to utter their continuous or intermittent cries; they are glossy with health and freedom; they are alert, bright-eyed, watchful of the unfamiliar spectator, and ready to dart off if he so much as stir a finger. And as Bewick saw them, so we see them, with their fitting background of leaf and bough, of rock or underwood,—backgrounds that are often studies in themselves. Behind the rook his fellows stalk the furrows, disdainful of the scarecrow, while their black nests blot the trees beyond; the golden plover stands upon his marshy heath; the robin and the fieldfare have each his appropriate snow-clad landscape; the little petrel skims swiftly in the hollow of a wave.'
The mention of these apt backgrounds brings us naturally to another, and, with the ordinary public, perhaps more popular feature of the '(Quadrupeds' and 'Birds,' the well-known tail-pieces, in many of which Bewick displayed a humour, a pathos, an observation, and a sense of the lacrimæ rerum, which are unique. It would take pages to describe them adequately, and they must be studied to be appreciated. The largest number are contained in the 'Birds' of 1847 and the ' Quadrupeds ' of 1807, and some of the delicate little water-colours from which they were engraved are to be found at the British Museum. It has been affirmed (Chatto's Treatise on Wood Engraving, 3rd ed., 1860, p. 396 et seq.) that many of these were the work of clever pupils whom by this period Bewick had drawn about him. At so great a distance of time it is difficult to decide what extent of truth there is in this statement, never very acceptable to Bewick's representatives. Some of the tail-pieces are obviously not cut by him, and bear traces of the graver of Clennell [see Clennell, Luke]. Two other pupils, Johnson [see Johnson, Robert], and Nesbit [see Nesbit, Charlton], are also supposed to have assisted. The fact would appear to be that, after the fashion of those days, all Bewick's staff were pressed into his undertaking. But he was without question the presiding spirit; the initial impulse came from him; and, however they may have prospered when working under his eye, none of those named ever rivalled him in his own way when working by themselves. That they rendered him valuable aid, therefore, detracts little or nothing from his reputation.
In 1804, when the second volume of the 'Birds' was issued, Bewick was a man of fifty, He had still four-and-twenty years to live. But, if we except the part taken by him in the 'Poems by Groldsmith and Parnell,' 1795, and Somervile's 'Chase,' 1796 [see Bewick, John], he never produced anything to equal the 'Select Fables' of 1784, and the three volumes on Natural History. A large number of works illustrated, or said to be illustrated, by him have been traced out by the enthusiasm of the late Mr. Hugo, whose unwieldy and indiscriminate collection was dispersed at Sotheby's in August 1877. The only book of any real importance subsequent to 1804 is the 'Fables of ÆEsop,' 1818. If any other volumes issued in the interval deserve a passing mention, they are Thomson's 'Seasons,' 1805; 'The Hive of Ancient and Modern Literature,' 1806, the majority of the cuts to which were by Clennell: Burns's 'Poems,' 1808: and Ferguson's 'Poems,' 1814. The designs for the Burns and the Thomson were by Thurston [see Thurston, John]: and it is stated, on the authority of William Harvey, that the former were engraved by a pupil named Henry White. Of the 'Fables of Æsop' Bewick speaks as if it had been a long-cherished idea. 'I could not,' he says, '… help regretting that I had not published a book similar to "Croxall's Æsop's Fables," as I had always intended to do' he seems to forget or ignore the 'Select Fables' of 1784; and he goes on to say that after a severe illness that he had in 1812, as soon as he was so far recovered as to be able to sit at the window, he began to 'draw designs upon the wood' for the illustrations (Memoir, p. 173). He was assisted in this book, he expressly tells us, by his son R. E. Bewick, and by two of his pupils, William Temple and William Harvey. Most of the designs are based upon Croxall. Many of the tail-pieces are good and humorous, but, as compared with the earlier works, they are generally more laboured and less happy.
Little more remains to be told of Bewick's life. He continued until a short time before his death to occupy his old shop in St. Nicholas Churchyard, where, by the way, it still exists (1886), with a tablet proclaiming its history, and rejoicing in a window upon which his name is scratched. In 1823 he went to Edinburgh, where he made his only sketch upon the stone ('The Cadger's Trot'). In 1827 he was visited by the American naturalist Audubon, who has left an interesting account of his impressions (Ornithological Biography, 1835, iii. pp. 300 et seq.), and he came to London. But he was old and in failing health; and it is recorded that when driven to the Regent's Park he declined to alight in order to see the animals. His last work, in addition to the never completed 'History of British Fishes' already referred to, was a large cut, intended to serve as a cottage print of the kind familiar to his boyhood. Progressing with this, a lean-ribbed. And worn-out old horse waiting patiently in the rain for death, he was overtaken by the illness to which he succumbed. Copies of the block in its unfinished state were struck off in 1832 by R. E. Bewick, and it was again reprinted at Newcastle, in 1876, by Mr. Robert Robinson of Pilgrim Street.
Bewick died on 8 Nov. 1828, at his house, 19 West Street, Gateshead. He is buried in Ovingham churchyard by the side of his wife, who had preceded him in February 1826. His character seems to have been that of a thoroughly upright and honourable man, independent but unassuming, averse to display, very methodical, very industrious, and devoted to his fireside, his own folk, and that particular patch of earth which constituted his world. In such scant glimpses as we get of him in letters and the recollections of friends, it is chiefly under some of these latter aspects. Now he is chatting to the country people in the market-place, or making friends with some vagrant specimen of bird or beast; now throwing off a sketch at the kitchen table to please the bairns, or working diligently at the 'Birds' in the winter evenings to the cheery sound of his beloved Northumberland pipes.
As an engraver Bewick has been justly styled the restorer of wood engraving in England. It is to the impulse which it received from his individual genius that its revival as an art must be ascribed. To give an account of the special features of his technique here would, however, be impossible. But two points may be mentioned in special. In the first place, he was among the earliest, if not the earliest, to cut upon the end of the wood instead of along it, as had been the practice of the old plank or knife cutters; and, in the second, he was the inventor of what is technically known as 'white line' in wood-engraving. Of this he may be allowed to give his own definition. Speaking in the 'Memoir,' p. 241, of the effect produced in a woodcut by plain parallel lines as opposed to cross lines, he goes on: 'This is very apparent when to a certainty the plain since of the wood will print as black as ink and balls can make it, without any further labour at all; and it may easily be seen that the thinnest strokes cut upon the plain surface will throw some light on the subject or design, and if these strokes are made wider and deeper, it will receive more light; and if these strokes again are made still wider, or of equal thickness to the black lines, the colour these produce will be a grey; and the more the white strokes are thickened, the nearer will they, in their varied shadings, approach to white, and, if quite taken away, then a perfect white is obtained.' Bewick, in short, paid most attention, not to what he left, but to what he cut away from the block. He regarded himself as making a white design upon a black block which was to produce a black design upon white paper. To his knowledge of this method must be ascribed the effect of his work, but to understand it thoroughly some treatise such as Hamerton's 'Graphic Arts,' 1882, or Linton's 'Practical Hints on Wood Engraving,' 1879, should be consulted. In the latter work the point is very clearly and fully explained.
There are numerous portraits of Bewick. Miss Bewick of Cherryburn (his great-niece) has a picture of him when young, by a local artist, George Gray. Then there is the engraving by Kidd in 1798, after Miss Kirkley. There are also at least three well-known portraits by James Ramsay. One of these, that engraved by Burnet in 1817, is in the Newcastle Natural History Society's Museum; the National Portrait Gallery contains another, dated 1823; and a third is the little full-length, engraved by F. Bacon in 1852, the original of which is in the possession of Mr. R. S. Newall of Gateshead. Besides these there is an excellent portrait by Good of Berwick, showing Bewick in old age, as well as a portrait by Nicholson, belonging to Mr. T. Crawhall of Condercum, and etched by Flameng in 1882 for the Fine Arts Society. Nicholson also did another picture, engraved by Ranson in 1810, and there is a miniature by Murphy, engraved by J. Summerfield. Lastly, there is E. H. Baily's bust in the Newcastle Literary and Philosophical Society's Library, which was engraved in the 'Century Magazine' for September 1882, and is regarded by those who knew Bewick as an excellent likeness.
[The chief authorities for Bewick's life are: Atkinson's Memoir in the Transactions of the Natural History Society of Northumberland, &c., for 1831; Chatto's Treatise on Wood Engraving, 1839, ch. vii.; Memoir of Thomas Berwick, written by himself, 1842; Bell's Catalogue, 1851; Hugo's Berwick Collector, 1866-8 (2 vols.) Little has been added to these by later researches, although, much information not hitherto brought together he found enjoyment as a in one volume is to be found in D. C. Thomson's Life and Works of Bewick. 1882. There is also much appreciative criticism in the Notes prefixed by Mr. F. G. Stephens to the Fine Art Society's Bewick Catalogue of 1881 . It should be stated that most of the above account is abridged from an article by the present writer in the 'Century Magazine' for September 1882, since republished in the volume entitled 'Thomas Bewick and his Pupils.' 1884.]