Sunday, April 17, 2011

Thomas Bewick

In our image-saturated culture it may be hard to imagine a time when the average European's exposure to visual representations of the world might be limited to tavern signs, decorations in churches (where these were not proscribed), and the crude illustrations of chapbooks and broadsides, an era before photography, lithography, and their digital successors made possible the routine mass-production of pictures. Thomas Bewick's oft-reproduced wood engravings may appear quaint and bucolic to us now, at least at first glance, but in their day they represented a revolutionary advance in the production and marketing of images. For much of his audience, Bewick's depiction of the wonders of nature was a revelation.

Bewick was born in 1753 in a village a few miles west of Newcastle upon Tyne. By his own account he was a fairly incorrigible youth, given to pranks and outdoor escapades and subject to canings for his misbehavior. His saving grace was an early acquired fondness for drawing, his stroke of good fortune an apprenticeship to the Newcastle engraver Ralph Beilby, later his partner. Under Beilby's stewardship he took on a variety of metal engraving tasks, but it was his knack for the relatively novel technique of wood engraving that brought him renown and a good living for the rest of his long and largely fulfilling life.

Unlike traditional woodcuts, wood engravings use sections of wood -- boxwood from Turkey was the preferred source -- that are sliced across rather than with the grain. The resulting blocks are small but tough, and a skilled hand like Bewick's could achieve fine detail that could otherwise only be obtained through the more expensive metal engraving techniques.

The three images below are from Bewick's illustrations for The Fables of Aesop and Others (1818). Though confined within strict borders, they display vivid naturalism -- the result of the marriage of technique and first-hand familiarity with the countryside -- and a flair for drawing out the personalities of his subjects.

For Bewick's most famous productions, his illustrated natural histories of quadrupeds and birds, the borders were shed, allowing his subjects to come right up to the viewer's eye.

In printing the great natural history works, Bewick engraved a series of tail-pieces (or "tale-pieces," as he called them, with deliberate wordplay), intended to occupy empty spaces at the end of a chapter. These rustic slice-of-life scenes afforded Bewick an opportunity to make subtle satirical or moral statements that can be easy to miss with a cursory glance. Bewick was in his day what might be called a moderate radical, sympathetic to political reform movements, to the Scots, and to those displaced by enclosures, skeptical of sectarian creeds and war makers. In one "tale-piece," entitled "The Proper Use At Last of All Warlike Monuments," a jackass rubs its posterior against an inscribed pillar leaning over in a field.

Many of Bewick's pictures have been endlessly reproduced and are widely available on the web, but the number of high-quality scans is surprisingly low, especially for the "tale-pieces." (Bear in mind that the original blocks were often only a few inches tall.) I was unable to find good versions of the illustrations Bewick created for Oliver Goldsmith's poem "The Deserted Village" ("Ill fares the land, to hast'ning ill a prey, / Where wealth accumulates, and men decay;"), and only one of the copper engravings Bewick executed for Matthew Consett's A Tour through Sweden, Swedish-Lapland, Finland and Denmark.

With the exception of the reindeer, the images shown here are from the galleries of the Bewick Society, which also publishes a blog entitled Tale-Pieces. The Edmonton Art Gallery has a fuller selection with, unfortunately, fairly poor scans.

In the end, though, Bewick's engravings are best appreciated as they were intended to be seen, on paper, and fortunately, there are various collections of his work, ranging from inexpensive paperbacks to budget-breaking limited editions. Two years ago the Ikon Gallery published a hardcover catalogue of the first comprehensive exhibition of the "tale-pieces," and for those with deep pockets Nigel Tattersfield's three-volume Thomas Bewick: The Complete Illustrative Work will be published by the British Library and Oak Knoll Press this month.

Jenny Uglow's Nature's Engraver, the most recent biography of Bewick, has a number of illustrations, as does printing historian Iain Bain's definitive edition of the artist's posthumously published Memoir (Oxford University Press, 1975 & 1979), which is recommended both for its unaffected charm and as a valuable record of rural life and workshop practices.

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