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How to classify a field mouse?

How to classify a field mouse?

A general history of quadrupeds (1790) was Thomas Bewick’s first major independent publication. It was intended for children but was popular with adult audiences too: in the late-Eighteenth Century, the British took great interest in describing, recording and classifying the natural world. The book contains descriptions of 260 mammals and their habitats as well as engravings of many of the featured animals, like this long-tailed field mouse.

Thomas Bewick (1753-1828) was born in Mickley, Northumberland. As a child, he loved the countryside of the Tyne Valley and often shirked his farm and colliery duties to go fishing or wandering. He became apprenticed to an engraver in Newcastle upon Tyne, Ralph Beilby, and later became a partner in the business. He drew upon his fascination with the natural world to specialise in illustrations of mammals, birds and reptiles. 

Early in his career he took on different kinds of work, including illustrating children’s books and making wood blocks for use in advertisements. Bewick revolutionised illustrative techniques and left a legacy that is still celebrated today. In engraving hard box wood blocks against the grain, and using tools usually favoured by metal engravers, Bewick achieved a much greater level of fine detail in his woodcuts than had previously been possible. It was a technical innovation. 

Pulling the Quadrupeds together had been challenging: the rival systems for classifying and organising animals, proposed by Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707-1788) and John Ray (1627-1705) conflicted with each other. Bewick and Beilby simply arranged the content so that those that they perceived to be the most useful animals appeared first. At the time, Quadrupeds was the most comprehensive, if somewhat erratic and unreliable, contemporary illustrated guide to nature. It sold well and ran to several editions. 

Reference: Bradshaw-Bewick 761 BEW, Bewick, T. & R. Beilby, A general history of quadrupeds: the figures engraved on wood (1790), Bradshaw-Bewick Collection, Newcastle University Special Collections, GB 186.

Potential research ideas

Bewick is synonymous with technical innovation in the field of illustration. You could explore late-eighteenth-century and early-nineteenth-century print culture to determine to what extent Bewick led the industry. Did anyone follow in Bewick’s footsteps? What were the consequences of Bewick’s innovations? Bewick’s engravings often treat moral subjects – to what extent did his art reflect society? Did his engravings have any positive influence over people? There is still interest in Bewick’s work more that two centuries later, what do you think his legacy has been and what makes his work relevant today? Bewick’s most popular book was his History of British birds (mentioned in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre). He was more than an engraver, he was a naturalist. Can you find any evidence of Bewick having popularised natural history? Does it matter that his depictions and descriptions of birds and animals were not always accurate? The North East of England has a strong tradition in natural history, where would you place Bewick within this tradition?

Selected background reading

What can I find here in Special Collections?

  • Our Manuscript Album contains 2 items relating to Bewick:
  • Donald, D., 2013. The art of Thomas Bewick. London: Reaktion. 21st Coll. 769.92 DON, 21st Century Collection, Newcastle University Special Collections, GB 186. – Setting Bewick’s work in the context of his life, political and religious views.
  • Uglow , J.S., 2006. Nature’s engraver: a life of Thomas Bewick. London: Faber. 21st Coll. 769.92 UGL, 21st Century Collection, Newcastle University Special Collections, GB 186. – Drawing on materials held in Special Collections.
  • Cundall, J., 1895. A brief history of wood-engraving from its invention. London: Sampson Low, Marston. Clarke Misc. 348, Clarke (Edwin) Miscellaneous Collection, Newcastle University Special Collections, GB 186. – On the history of wood-engraving.

What can I find elsewhere?

  • The Natural History Society of Northumbria is one of the most significant sources of material relating to Bewick. In its care are the Bewick family’s natural history books, 738 watercolour and pencil drawings, engravings, manuscripts and correspondence.
  • The Bewick Collection is held at Newcastle City Library and is based on the collection that was privately built-up by businessman John William Pease (1836-1901). The collection includes 1,000 original Bewick woodblocks, Bewick’s works in all editions, associated materials and even Bewick’s toolbox that had been given to Joseph Crawhall II, the executor of his estate.
  • Cherryburn, the birthplace of Thomas Bewick, is now owned by the National Trust. There you will find a small display of original works as well as woodblocks and plates and examples of Bewick’s works and publications from the collection built-up by Justin Schiller.
  • Tyne and Wear Archives holds documents relating to the Beilby-Bewick engraving business, such as manuscript account books, ledgers and other business records. Among these are:
    • TWAS 1269/11-21 Eleven Day Books 1766-1832.
  • The Wordsworth Trust has interests and collections that go beyond the life and work of the romantic poet William Wordsworth. The Jerwood Centre also houses letters and notes to and from Thomas Bewick, which include both business and personal correspondence. These letters provide valuable information relating to distribution networks, publishing and manufacture.

Interested in wood cuts / wood engravings or natural history?

A general history of quadrupeds and other works by, and relating to, Thomas Bewick are held in the Bradshaw-Bewick Collection. If you are interested in illustrative techniques, our Chapbooks, Broadsides and Burman-Alnwick Collection provide examples of stock woodcuts. More refined examples of woodcuts are found in the original blocks and chapbook revivals created by Joseph Crawhall II (1821-1896), held in the Crawhall (Joseph II) Collection.  

The 18th Century Collection comprises books printed 1700-1799 and covers a wide range of subjects. 

If, like Bewick, you are excited by natural history, don’t be put off by the foreign languages of books held in the Entomology Collection, which often contain beautiful hand-coloured illustrations of insects. Take a look, also, at our online version of the student-curated exhibition The Beauty of Insects: Seeing Art in the Entomological World which showcases illustrations from entomological books and literary works.