About Thomas Bewick

Photograph of Thomas Bewick. From The Life and Works of Thomas Bewick by David C. Thomson. 1882.
Special Collections. A. Frank Smith Jr., Library Center.

Thomas Bewick is best known for transforming the art of wood-engraving in England. Reviving it from its earlier more cumbersome technique during the previous two centuries, Bewick reinvented wood engraving by cultivating his own techniques, thereby radically altering book production and illustration methods during the nineteenth century.

His Life

The eldest of eight children, Thomas Bewick was born into a farming family in Ovingham, Northumberland. His family lived in the Cherryburn House amid the tranquil and pastoral countryside of North England. According to his autobiography, as a child, Bewick was more interested in playing outdoors, swimming in streams, and drawing wild beasts than being a student. Drawing scenes of battles, beasts, and birds on any surface available, including the margins of exercise books and the stones of porches and fireplaces, Bewick demonstrated his young, artistic ability.

At age fourteen, his talents proved their worth when he received an apprenticeship with a local Northumberland silver and billhead engraver. Eventually, Bewick exceeded his master's talents in the engraving of wood blocks, a medium Bewick naturally and skillfully adapted to.

After his apprenticeship, he looked for work in the city of London, which he found "crowded, dirty, and unfriendly" (Hutchinson, vi). He soon returned to his beloved countryside of Northumberland and opened his own wood engraving shop with his brother. At the age of thirty-two, Bewick married Jane Elliot, whom he described in his autobiography as "the best of wives and the best of mothers." Over the course of the next forty years, Bewick worked and taught in the very same Northumberland shop until his death in 1828 at the age of seventy-five. He was buried at Ovingham churchyard, near the Cherryburn House where he was born.

His Work

One of the most remarkable things about Bewick's wood engravings is that they were incredibly durable and could yield as many as 900,000 prints. Bewick transformed the art of wood engraving by using hard wood, carving on the end grain, and utilizing tools normally suited for metal engraving.

Most of Bewick's work focuses on the natural beauty surrounding his home of Northumberland, England. Some of his most popular vignettes adorning book covers depict pastoral scenes, images of people crossing country streams, and various creatures of the forest and field. A family member once commented, "He used to go out and look at things, and then come home and draw them" (Hutchinson, vii).

In addition to creating numerous wood engravings, Bewick also instructed several apprentices who studied and continued his methods of wood engraving. His pupils included Charlton Nesbit, Luke Clennell, William Harvey, Henry Hole, William Temple, and John Jackson. Many of their works directly imitate Thomas Bewick's style, making it difficult for scholars to identify Bewick's works versus his pupils'.

Bewick gained widespread popularity after publishing A General History of Quadrupeds, a collection of wood-engravings of animals published in 1790. In 1797, he gained even more renown with his two-volume History of British Birds, which Charlotte Brontë writes about in her novel Jane Eyre,

"I returned to my book-Bewick's History of British Birds: the letter-press thereof I cared little for, generally speaking; and yet there were certain introductory pages that, child as I was, I could not pass quite as a blank."

Bewick's last published book was his autobiography titled Memoir of Thomas Bewick, Written by Himself. It was published in 1862 by his daughter.

 

Bibliography

Bewick, Thomas. A memoir of Thomas Bewick, written by himself. Embellished by numerous wood engravings, designed and engraved by the author for a work on British fishes, and never before published. Edited by Jane Bewick. Newcastle Upon Tyne: Longman, Green, Longman, and Roberts, 1862.

Hutchinson, Robert. "Introduction." 1800 Woodcuts by Thomas Bewickk and His School. Ed. Blanche Cirker. NewYork, NY: Dover Publications, Inc., 1990. v-ix.

Thomson, David Croal. The Life and Works of Thomas Bewick, Being an account of His Career and Achievements in Art with a Notice of the Works of John Bewick. With One Hundred Illustrations. London: "The Art Journal" office, 1882.

 
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