Bewick Biographer Wins Literary Prize

By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 18, 2008

The English engraver Thomas Bewick never expected that his vivid, detailed woodcuts of birds and animals would make him famous. And he certainly couldn't have imagined that, nearly 180 years after his death, his English biographer would win an American literary prize.

That's what happened yesterday, however, when the Arts Club of Washington announced that the second annual National Award for Arts Writing had gone to Jenny Uglow's "Nature's Engraver: A Life of Thomas Bewick," published in this country by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Uglow, whose long career as a writer and editor has earned her many honors -- among them membership in the Order of the British Empire -- said by telephone from her Canterbury home that she was "really thrilled" by this one, though she hadn't heard of it before.

Bewick is the kind of artist, Uglow said, who gets taken for granted. Nature lovers look at his work but "don't ask where it comes from." As she looked more closely, and began to see how minutely and lovingly observed the engravings were, she found herself asking: "Who is this bloke?"

He grew up in Northumberland, the son of a tenant farmer and collier. His parents, noticing that he loved to draw, apprenticed him as a teenager to a Newcastle engraver. Bewick chose to work with wood rather than the copper engraving more common at the time.

"He was a workingman, a working engraver," Uglow points out, who supported himself by taking whatever commercial jobs came his way. "The engravings he did of animals and birds were things he did for love in the evening."

Published as "A General History of Quadrupeds," which featured more than 200 engravings of animals, and the two-volume "A History of British Birds," they became his masterpieces.

Asked what surprised her as she researched her subject's life, Uglow said she hadn't fully understood how Bewick's work fit in with the political and cultural currents of the early 19th century.

"His art is political because it's the art of ordinary people," she explained. It is "very much the same thing Wordsworth was trying to do with ballads" by using what the poet called "the language of ordinary men." The grand houses of England boasted big books filled with copper engravings; Bewick wanted "the farmer or the boy at school" to have access to that kind of art, too.

Another surprise was a trove of notebooks filled with the details of Bewick's working life. These offered a "very immediate" sense of a quick-tempered but humorous and generous man.

Uglow's book was selected for the $15,000 award by former poet laureate Robert Pinsky, novelist Jamaica Kincaid and librarian and author Nancy Pearl from a list of books nominated by publishers or suggested by club members. The judges' decision was unanimous.

The writing in "Nature's Engraver" is "down to earth and yet transporting," Pearl said, and Uglow's book "brings this time period alive in a way that even the best historical fiction sometimes fails to do."

The other finalists were Carolyn Brown's "Chance and Circumstance: Twenty Years With Cage and Cunningham"; Nigel Cliff's "The Shakespeare Riots: Revenge, Drama, and Death in Nineteenth-Century America"; William Jelani Cobb's "To the Break of Dawn: A Freestyle on the Hip Hop Aesthetic"; and Alex Ross's "The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century."

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