Thomas Bewick, who was born in rural Northumberland in 1753, was an author, illustrator and publisher and became ‘the father of modern wood engraving’. His work is almost always instantly recognisable and his History of British Birds is really the first field guide for naturalists. His natural history books are his best known and greatest legacy but what is probably less appreciated is that he also wrote and illustrated very cheap books of fables and other moral tales for children.
All of his books contain vignettes or tailpieces [space fillers at the end of the text] in which Bewick often made subtle social comments or jokes. They often feature landscapes and sometimes gardens, either as locations or to provide exemplars and Bewick’s beautiful engravings often reveal all sorts of little details about contemporary rural life, which don’t often appear in more standard, and largely unillustrated, texts,
so read on to find out more about these miniature masterpieces and what they can tell us about gardens and gardeners…
Most of our knowledge about Bewick’s early life comes from his autobiographical Memoir, published by his daughter in 1862, although it had been written in the 1820s. It is a unique record of a north-country childhood and then working life as a craftsman in late Georgian England. He grew up fascinated by nature and with a great desire to draw and paint but in 1767 he was sent as an apprentice to Ralph Bielby, an engraver [according to Bewick’s Dictionary of National Biography entry, the only engraver] in Newcastle. At first he hated the idea, writing in his Memoir that “to part from the country & to leave all its beauties behind me, with which all my life I had been charmed in an extreme degree, & in a way I cannot describe—I can only say my heart was like to break.”
But Bielby was his making and the two were later to go into business partnership. “I think he was the best master in the World, for learning Boys, for he obliged them to put their hands to every variety of Work”. This included everything from engraving cutlery to advertising blocks. Then in 1766 came an unlikley breakthrough when Bielby was asked to engrave some woodblock illustrations. The job was given to Bewick. They were admired, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Right at the end of his apprenticeship he was asked to do nearly 80 illustrations for an edition of Fables by the Late Mr Gay for a local printer. One of them was sent by Bielby to the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce in London, and Bewick was awarded a prize. When his apprenticeship ended he continued to work for Bielby, but largely from home, and then in late 1776 he decided to try his luck in London. There was plenty of work there but writing home he said: ” I must first begin by telling you that I like it (or like to live in it) very badly … and tho’ I might always continue to meet with the greatest encouragement imajinable—yet wou’d I rather live in both poverty and insecurity in NCastle.” So, in less than a year, back to Northumberland he went.
On his return to Newcastle he formed a partnership with his old master which was to last for twenty productive years ￼and see the publication of much of the work on which his reputation rests. Despite this, the business still continued to be mainly general metal engraving work with only a small amount of time and effort devoted to wood engraving.
Nevertheless the first thirteen years of his partnership with Bielby saw the commissioning of illustrations for more than eighty small books for children with such titles as The Tale of Tommy Trip, Cinderella, Goody Goosecap, and Jacky Dandy, as well as many books of fables, manuals for spelling and reading primers. Bewick provided engravings for them all.
In 1792, for example, he illustrated The Looking-Glass for the Mind, or Intellectual Mirror, a collection of short moral tales which were not quite as sickly as one might expect. They were translated from the French original by Becquin.
In Alfred and Dorinda, their father promises his two children a walk “in a fine garden a little way out of town” and tells them to get ready. Alfred gets very excited and jumps about and in the process “the skirt of his coat brushed against a valuable flower which his father was rearing with great pains” and which had just been moved from the window to stop it getting scorched. Dorinda picks up the bloom and says “O brother what have you done” when of course her father returns and assumes she has broken the precious flower. She accepts the blame and but Alfred is so ashamed that he owns up – and – it being a moral tale – eventually they all lived happily ever after.
In ‘The Fruitful Vine’ a boy walking in the garden one winter with his father asks why he allows an ugly old stump of a plant to remain and tells him to cut it down and replace it with something prettier. Of course its a grapevine and when he’s eating the grapes the next summer his father reminds him…
My favourite of this collection is the story of William and Thomas, despite it being about the idleness of an elder brother [not true of course in my case!]
The two brothers are given the care of two identical apple trees and the younger tends for his carefully while the older ignores his. At harvest time there is obviously the reward for hard work – a massive crop on the younger brother’s tree- and indolence – nothing on the other one. This of course leads to much complaining and wailing but after listening to the complaints the father decides to give both trees to the younger brother to see if he can restore the barren one to health and productivity. BUT, it being a moral take, he allows the possibility of reform and tells the older brother that he can go to the nursery and select any other tree that he wishes “and try what you can with that” Another happy ending!
And here are some other cuts, from similar books…
At the same time both he and Bielby were working in the evenings on a bigger project which finally saw the light of day in 1790. This was the General History of Quadrupeds with illustrations by Bewick and, in theory, text by Bielby. However the older man did not know much about natural history so, according to the memoir, “we got Books on that subject to enable him to form a better notion of these matters; with this I had little more to do, than in furnishing him, in many conversations & written memorandums, of what I knew of Animals, and of blotting out, in his manuscript what was not truth. Quadrupeds was a great success, running to seven editions and selling 14,000 copies.
The first part of Britsih Birds – Land Birds – another evening production, followed in 1797 to great acclaim. But the partnership was under strain as Bielby failed to produce the text which ended up falling to Bewick as well. Bewick bought Bielby out and thereafter ran the business on his own, taking on several more apprentices to help out. The second part on Water Birds appeared in 1804. British Birds ran to 8 editions in Bewick’s lifetime and required more than 600 printing blocks.
Bewick now found himself the subject of a huge amount of correspondence from amateur naturalists about possible errors in the text and requesting more information. Normal business became almost impossible because of the demands on his time. From then on the engraving work was often delegated to others and the quality inevitably declined.
In 1811 Bewick began work on his own last book, The Fables of Aesop and Others, which was finally published 1818 with a 2nd edition five years later. He rewrote many of the fables himself as well as designing the illustrations, which were then cut by apprentices under his close supervision and then ‘finished’ by Bewick himself.
Bewick took the woodblock from the cheap broadsheet to fine art. By adopting technical innovations which allowed him to integrate traditional wooden printing blocks with metal type, he was able not only to create finer images, but also make the blocks themselves more durable. As a result Berwick managed to increase production runs and yet still maintain high quality illustrations and all at an affordable price.
For more on Bewick the best places to start are the website of the Bewick Society and that of the Newcastle Museum Bewick Collection, both of which contain lots more information and links.