Michael Dirda

By Michael Dirda
Sunday, June 24, 2007


A Life of Thomas Bewick

By Jenny Uglow

Farrar Straus Giroux. 458 pp. $30

Woodblocks are, as Jenny Uglow explains, the oldest way to print words and images: "Before Gutenberg invented moveable type around 1450, books and broadsheets were produced by writing the text on wood in reverse, as in a mirror, and then cutting painstakingly round the letters, dabbing the block with ink and pressing paper on top." Early masters of this technique include Albrecht Dürer and Hans Holbein. Gradually, however, woodblocks were pushed aside by copper engravings, which could achieve more delicate effects. Only when artists began to work the dense end grain of wood, rather than the soft, long, plank side, did they find that this harder surface could give the resulting images a new silkiness and subtlety. This was especially so when the printmakers stopped thinking about the black lines and cutting away around them and instead "thought of the background as black and concentrated on making the design with the white lines -- the slivers of wood that were removed." Thomas Bewick (1753-1828) is generally regarded as England's greatest -- and most beloved -- wood engraver.

Many readers are familiar with woodcuts as the decorations on old title pages, the ornaments at the top of chapter headings or as the little illustrations in fine press books. Some of Bewick's 20th-century successors include Paul Nash, Gwen Raverat, Eric Ravilious, Reynolds Stone, Joan Hassall and Claire Leighton. Printed in black and white, such artists' thumbnail-sized vignettes add enormously to the charm of a book, especially to those that highlight country life. Bewick himself decorated 18th-century editions of children's stories and Aesop's fables, but his artistry goes beyond mere winsomeness in his two masterpieces, A General History of Quadrupeds (1790) and A History of British Birds ( Land Birds, 1797; Water Birds, 1804). In these he portrayed animals with an affection, insight and accuracy that earned him the admiration of naturalists, the applause of other artists, and the devotion of the public. Children and antiquaries alike were fascinated by these volumes, which came to be viewed as zoological bibles but with something of the miniaturist charm of Beatrix Potter (who revered Bewick).

Jenny Uglow, much esteemed for her previous biography of William Hogarth and for her account of those 18th-century manufacturers, inventors and visionaries known as the Lunar Men (Josiah Wedgwood, Joseph Priestley and Erasmus Darwin being the best known), has taken on a particularly difficult subject in Bewick. For this master of wood engraving lived a singularly enviable life, one utterly devoid of high drama and excitement. Apart from a couple of visits to Edinburgh and London (he quite disliked the latter), Bewick passed his 75 years in or near Newcastle Upon Tyne in northern England. He was devoted to his parents and siblings, and later to his wife and children. His chief pleasures in life, aside from his family and his work, were fishing, walking in the countryside, and talking with other craftsmen and skilled artisans over a pint at the local pub. He detested war, loved music, was something of an early conservationist, and sympathized with what were then regarded as radical ideas, i.e., that working people deserved representation in and recognition by government. Thomas Bewick was proud to be "very ordinary," and died honored and loved by virtually all who knew him.

Coming from a rather middle-class yeoman's family -- his father oversaw a small colliery and farm -- the rangy and athletic Bewick was early on apprenticed as an engraver and eventually went into partnership with his former master, Ralph Beilby. The partnership lasted for more than 20 years, as the firm took on every sort of commercial engraving job -- broadsheets, monograms, banknotes, labels, tickets, invitations, what have you. Many of Bewick's best early works were created as pictorial book filler, "tailpieces" for those chapters or sections of text that ended with extra white space on the page. These little pictures are quite wonderful both in themselves and as peepholes into 18th-century rural life: "boys flying kites, sailing boats on puddles, tumbling off carts; women chasing geese; men mending nets; old soldiers in unheroic rags; fishermen tangling their line in the trees." Together, as Uglow notes, "these scenes make a world." To many modern readers they also seem visual analogues to the poems of Robert Burns, Wordsworth and John Clare.

Nature's Engraver is, throughout, something of a paean to the methodical, admirable practice of the skilled craftsman, in which head, hand and heart work harmoniously together. Bewick always insisted to his apprentices that any job had to be done "perfectly correct." When he came to make the 200 or so woodcuts of animals and more than a hundred tailpieces for The General History of Quadrupeds, he turned to every resource available. He pored over earlier reference books, studied stuffed animals, and encouraged friends and correspondents to send him unusual creatures, alive or dead. They happily obliged, for the late 18th century was the great age of amateur naturalists, antiquarian clergymen, and passionate collectors. Nonetheless, Bewick recognized that he worked best when he himself possessed real familiarity with his subjects. His second masterpiece is devoted solely to British birds.

After dissolving his partnership with Beilby, Bewick ran his own shop for the remaining 30 years of his life. He trained dozens of young engravers. When John James Audubon came to pay his respects in 1827, he found "a tall, stout man, with a large head, and with eyes placed farther apart than those of any man I have ever seen -- a perfect old Englishman, full of life, though seventy-four years of age, active and prompt in his labours." Other visitors were sometimes shocked to see Bewick at work with his hat on and a chaw of tobacco under his lower lip. In his very last years, he spent his evenings and free time setting down his memoirs, recalling his early days and offering bits of moral guidance to the young. As a deist, he believed in communing with nature, practiced active benevolence and strove constantly for the reward of "perpetual cheerfullness."

Uglow makes clear that Bewick did have a temper and could quarrel with friends, but by and large he really seems a completely admirable human being. His final engravings reveal a calm acceptance of nature's order. One depicts an old horse and is titled "Waiting for Death." Another, his very last vignette according to his daughter, "shows a coffin, followed by a small procession, being carried from the house on the hill down to the river. . . . It is winter and the leafless branches bend in the wind as the boat waits on the water, ready to carry its cargo to the shades. The rough, strong strokes of the woodcut reveal the stiffness of Bewick's elderly hands, but they conjure the moment for us still, across the currents of time."

Uglow's crisp prose and thorough research make this a splendid biography. But it becomes an endearing one by the scattered presence of so many of Bewick's woodcuts. As a result, Nature's Engraver is not only an example of felicitous scholarship but also a sampler, an introduction to the work of a superb artist and enviable man. ·

Michael Dirda can be reached at mdirda@gmail.com.

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