Reivers and Heroes: Borders in the Romantic Age
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A Local Artist: Thomas Bewick (1753-1828)
The artist and wood-engraver Thomas Bewick was born at Cherryburn, Northumberland, in August 1753, as the eldest of eight children. Early on he demonstrated his talent for drawing with an especially keen eye for nature.
At the age of 14, Bewick was apprenticed to the Newcastle engraver Ralph Beilby (1743-1817). After acquiring basic skills in engraving by first working with the hard elements of silver and copper, Bewick was employed to make cuts on wood for a number of local printers, and soon all requests Beilby received for work on wood were directed to Bewick, who eventually became his partner.
Bewick's technique involved engraving the end, rather than the length, of the close-grained boxwood. It was a more delicate and intricate technique and could achieve much more detail than metal engraving, but large boxwood blocks were expensive. Bewick used small blocks, rarely more than four inches across.
In all woodcutting, it is the white areas that are cut away, leaving the black lines on the surface to take the ink. Bewick, however, imagined the image in white as he engraved freehand, rather than following a previously drawn image on the block. This ‘white line technique’, combined with Bewick´s eye for natural details, especially for the posture and anatomy of animals, formed the basis of his mastery.
He also developed a method of slightly lowering the surface of some areas of the block to achieve more of a grey tone, giving the effect of distance. He thereby transformed a crude art into the most popular form of graphic art in Britain until the introduction of photography in the later Nineteenth Century.
Bewick, T. Tailpiece in
The Poetical Works of
Robert Burns . . .
Click to see a larger image
As well as being something of an ‘artist of Nature’, Bewick saw himself as a tutor and moral guardian, producing books such as Select Fables (1784), a Hieroglyphic Bible (1790), The Dance of Death of the celebrated Hans Holbein (1825) and A Choice Collection of Hymns and Moral Songs (1781).
Bewick, T. 'Puffin,' in The
History of British Birds
Click to see a larger image
Examples are Maria Edgeworth's Belinda (1801), Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre (1847), William Hazlitt's portrait of 'Mr Wordsworth' (in The Spirit of the Age ), Thomas Hood's 'Address to Mr. Dymoke, The Champion Of England' (in The Poetical Works of Thomas Hood ), and George Meredith's One of Our Conquerors (1891).
Examples of works that mention Bewick:
What a creature to keep a hot warrior cool
When the sun's in the face, and the shade's far aloof!---
What a tailpiece for Bewick!---or piebald for Poole,
To bear him in safety from Elliston's hoof!
Hood, T. 'Address to Mr. Dymoke, the Champion of England,'
The Poetical Works of Thomas Hood (London: Moxon, n.d.) p. 386
Victorian Collection V827.72 HOO
“O! mamma,” said one of the little boys, “this is
the very thing that is mentioned in Bewick's History
of Birds. Pray look at this goldfinch, Helena---now
it is drawing up it's little bucket---but where
is Helena?---here's room for you, Helena.”
Edgeworth, M. Belinda. Ch. XII; The Macaw.
I returned to my book---Bewick's History of British
Birds: the letter-press thereof I cared little for,
generally speaking; and yet there were certain introductory
pages that, child as I was, I could not pass quite
as a blank. They were those which treat of the haunts
of sea-fowl; of “the solitary rocks and promontories”
by them only inhabited; of the coast of Norway,
studded with isles from its southern extremity,
the Lindeness, or Naze, to the North Cape---
. . . . With Bewick on my knee, I was then happy: happy at least in my way. I feared nothing but interruption, and that came too soon. The breakfast room-door opened.
Brontė, C. Jane Eyre. Vol. I (London: Nelson, n.d.) Ch. I; p. 2.
Copy loaned to exhibition by Professor Claire Lamont
[Wordsworth] also likes books of voyages and travels, and Robinson Crusoe. In art, he greatly esteems Bewick's wood-cuts, and Waterloo's sylvan etchings. But he sometimes takes a higher tone, and gives his mind fair play.
Hazlitt, W. 'Mr. Wordsworth,' in The Spirit of the Age.