Saturday, May 07, 2011

A vignette by Bewick

In his posthumously published A Memoir, the engraver Thomas Bewick amused himself by imagining that the names and words of the great worthies of British history and literature might be carved into natural stone formations along rural roads in order to provide edification to passing travelers. Several of his vignettes -- or "tale-pieces" as he called them -- illustrate the idea; the example above bears Oliver Goldsmith's oft-quoted lines (perhaps, in truth, the only memorable lines) from "The Deserted Village," a lament for the destruction of traditional village life wrought by the Enclosure Acts and consequent emigration.
Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay;
Princes and lords may flourish or may fade;
A breath can make them, as a breath has made;
But a bold peasantry, their country's pride,
When once destroyed, can never be supplied.
Bewick would have known the poem well; he illustrated it for an edition The Poetical Works of Oliver Goldsmith, M. B. in 1794, but I suspect this image is later (it doesn't appear in the online edition I examined), and may have been used as a decoration for one of the several editions of Bewick's great illustrated works on quadrupeds and birds. It can be found in the Ikon Gallery's catalog Thomas Bewick: Tale-Pieces, which unfortunately doesn't identify its source. The actual image is only about two inches high.

Goldsmith's rosy evocation of bygone village life was no doubt highly romanticized, but his account of the social disruptions caused by the enclosure movement matches that of other witnesses. What he described can be seen as an early stage in the broader process -- one that is still very much underway -- by which smallholders and tenants throughout the world have been displaced from their lands, either through legal action or by market pressures, and have emigrated or gone to swell the burgeoning populations of cities, for better or for worse.

The general sentiment expressed in Goldsmith's lines remains resonant enough even today to have provided the late historian Tony Judt with the title of one of his last books, Ill Fares the Land.

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