Thomas Bewick (1753-1828)

Bewick's barn owl from his History of British Birds (1847)

Thomas Bewick (pronounced Beu-ick) is the best known British illustrator of natural history subjects. From early childhood he combined a fascination for drawing with his own detailed observations of the natural world. Bewick claimed that his desire to produce works of natural history originated in the 1780s with dissatisfaction over the books to which he had access as a young boy. He set out to reform not only the style of natural illustration but also the methods of print production. His technical innovations included the rediscovery of various aspects of wood block engraving. His carved images produced a wide range of textures and visual effects, primarily because he cut parallel lines in his blocks as opposed to the more usual cross-hatching. He also relied on the technique of white-line printing, in which the ink is placed on the raised edge of the carved relief instead of in the grooves between the edges. He achieved new effects in dimensional depth and atmospherics by lowing the background areas of his print block images, thus producing shades of gray around the central objects being depicted.

Ralph Beilby, to whom Bewick had initially been apprenticed, became Bewick’s partner in 1777, a partnership that lasted for two decades. Thomas Pennant’s General History of Quadrupeds had first appeared in 1781, and Gilbert White’s Natural History of Selborne followed in 1789. In 1790, Bewick and Beilby published the first edition of their own General History of Quadrupeds. By 1824 the work had appeared in eight editions. Since Bewick did not have access to most of the larger animals he was depicting, he based many of these illustrations on Buffon’s Histoire Naturelle (1749-1804), which was translated into English by W. Smellie (1781-85). Bewick and Beilby both contributed to the text of their natural history volumes, although a disagreement over the extent of Beilby’s role (he wanted to claim authorship of the volumes) led to the eventual dissolution of the partnership.

Bewick's woodcuts were noted for their sharp contrasts of light and dark. Here, a typical British trout stream with angler.

Bewick’s wood engraving were notable for their accuracy, delicate attention to detail, and lifelike poses. An avid naturalist himself, Bewick based many of his designs for British creatures and scenes (to which he did have access) on personal observations of birds and animals in their natural settings, or from specimens and skins sent to him by other naturalists. The History of British Birds, Bewicks’s most widely known work, began with Land Birds in 1797, followed by Water Birds in 1804. For these volumes, Bewick stated his desire to “stick to nature.” He issued revised editions in 1809 and 1816. Eight editions of Land Birds and six of Water Birds were in print by 1826. Bewick apprenticed first his brother and later his son in his studio. He died in 1828, a year after having been visited by John James Audubon. Bewick’s visual work often captures a mood that is reflected in the poetry of James Thomson, Robert Burns, and John Clare, among others. He often combines small–or reduced scale–human figures within the intricate details of accurate natural surroundings. The result is a sense of human beings as secondary to the nonhuman world, of natural phenomena that at once dominate and determine the framework in which the image is presented. “O that the genius of Bewick were mine” Wordsworth says in Lyrical Ballads. Charlotte Brontë wrote a poem to Bewick when she was only 16 years-old, and Brontë’s most famous character is reading Bewick’s History of British Birds it the opening pages of Jane Eyre. In fact, Jane Eyre quotes directly from Bewick, who is himself quoting James Thomson:

Where the Northern Ocean, in vast whirls
Boils around the naked, melancholy isles
Of farthest Thule; and the Atlantic surge
Pours among the stormy Hebrides.

This powerfully naturalistic passage is from Thomson’s Seasons. Jane Eyre says that she can never merely pass over these passages, “which treat of the haunts of seafowl; of ‘the solitary rocks and promontories’ by them only inhabited” (20-21), without pausing to take note of their power and surging energy. Bewick’s engravings contribute directly to these natural forces as they are embodied in the works of the many authors he illustrated during the late 18th- and early 19th-centuries.

Bewick Links

Thomas Bewick at the Edmonton Art Gallery

Technical details of Bewick’s methods of wood engraving


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