Nature’s Engraver

The book I have most enjoyed reading so far in 2015 was published in 2007, and I should have got to it long since, as it was written by one of my favourite authors, Jenny Uglow, whose latest work, In These Times, is the next in my pile. Nature’s Engraver describes the life and works of Thomas Bewick (1753–1828), perhaps the greatest wood-engraver ever.

Like many who were forced to read Jane Eyre at school (heaven knows why it was thought to be appropriate for thirteen-year-olds!), my first encounter with the name Bewick came in the famous opening chapter, where the child Jane is seeking, invisibility, security and escape behind the curtains of the library with the History of British Birds. Her reverie on Arctic solitudes and Bewick’s extraordinary tailpieces is rudely interrupted by her loathsome cousin John, precipitating the series of events which lead to Lowood (aka Cowan Bridge) School and eventually to Thornfield Hall.

BirdsBewick quad

It is not clear whether Bewick’s own autobiography (eventually published in 1862) was intended for wider reading, and in any case a more commercially minded publisher might have edited down the final chapters, which, dealing with his philosophy of life and views on religion, are interesting but very repetitive. It was written between 1822 and 1828 at the request of his daughter Jane, and describes in detail his childhood education (and his preference for the fields and woods of his Tyneside home), his early propensity for drawing and his apprenticeship in Newcastle to the silversmith and engraver Ralph Beilby.

The actual mechanics of his craft are, with a small number of exceptions, not dealt with in any detail, though he writes at length and with enthusiasm about his travels in England and Scotland, and on his favourite pastime of fishing. He was clearly a radical in politics, and like Arthur Young was concerned at what he saw as the incompetence of Pitt’s government, the likelihood of revolution, and the precariousness of the British crown during the Revolutionary Wars.

Unlike Arthur Young’s, however, his overall world view was not determined by an obsession with personal salvation. Believing in God and his wonderful works in nature, and helping one’s neighbours, seemed to him to be a sensible creed, and he was very forward-looking in his understanding of the implications of new geological and other discoveries for the literal truth of the Bible. His own observation of ‘muscle’ shells found at great depths in his father’s coal mine convinced him that the whole area must once have been under the sea.

He describes his sources for the British Birds, for which he used specimens provided by shooting friends and the collections of natural history enthusiasts in his neighbourhood, as well as the works of Buffon (which he had also used for the earlier Quadrupeds), and Thomas Pennant, who became a close friend via correspondence. (It occurs to me in passing that Pennant’s engraver must have seen at least a print of Stubbs’ famous picture of the kangaroo (recently saved, aong with its dingo companion, for the nation) to provide his image, as the pose is identical.) Bewick was also very impressed by the observational work of Gilbert White.

Stubbs' 'kongorou', painted for Sir Joseph Banks. (Courtesy of The Art Fund)

Stubbs’ ‘kongorou’, painted for Sir Joseph Banks. (Courtesy of The Art Fund)

Pennant quad

What is quite extraordinary, as Bewick describes it, is the way in which his series of master-works were created – after a hard day’s graft in the workshop, with by artificial light, with Beilby often reading out his notes on the habits of the particular beast or fowl Bewick was working on while he graved. (The quarrel between the two men over what we would now think of as the ‘IP’ of the works was a distressing one.)

The autobiography, like his other works, is illustrated with many of the tailpieces (some familiar scenes of everyday life, some grotesque) which so struck Jane Eyre: ‘The fiend pinning down the thief’s back behind him, I passed over quickly: it was an object of terror.’

The fiend prevents the thief escaping with his booty.

The fiend prevents the thief escaping with his booty.

It also contains the plates for the proposed book of British fishes which was left incomplete on Bewick’s death, and an appendix on the work of his younger brother and apprentice John Bewick (1760–95), who produced the engravings for Ritson’s Robin Hood, but who sadly died young.

One of John Bewick's engravings for 'Robin Hodd'

One of John Bewick’s engravings for ‘Robin Hood’

What the autobiography inevitably does not provide – and why therefore Uglow’s book is so fascinating – is a wider social and historical context to Bewick’s life and art, and in particular a picture of the thriving literary and cultural life of Newcastle when it was the fourth largest print centre in the country, and its Literary and Philosophical Society (of which Bewick was a founder member in 1793) had one of the best scientific libraries in the country. (Its guiding light, the Unitarian minister William Turner (1761–1859), had been a pupil of John Aikin at the Warrington Academy and was a relative of Elizabeth Gaskell, who recorded his active and benevolent life in her own writings.)

The great temptation, of course, is to urge you to read both books, and then fill up some space with beautiful birds – and who am I to resist temptation? (And I saw my first swallow on Wednesday!)


The barn owl

The barn owl

The jay

The jay

The goldcrest

The goldcrest

The swallow

The swallow

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