Thomas Bewick, the acclaimed wood engraver, artist and naturalist, was born in August 1753 at Cherryburn House, a small farm on the south banks of the river Tyne, in the parish of Ovingham, Northumberland. His father, John Bewick, who had married his mother Jane Wilson in 1752, was the tenant of a small eight-acre farm and adjacent colliery. Thomas being the eldest of eight children was, as a boy, expected to help around the farm and the colliery. His love of the surrounding countryside often led him to truancy from his tasks and he delighted in roaming about fishing, looking at flowers and watching birds and animals. This proved to have a great influence on his work in later life.
He was schooled in the nearby village of Ovingham by the Reverend Christopher Gregson, and at the age of fourteen apprenticed to Ralph Beilby, the owner of an engraving business in Newcastle upon Tyne, twelve miles away.
During his seven–year apprenticeship, Bewick was instructed in all the skills necessary to excel in the engraving business, but Beilby was soon to recognise his young protégé’s obvious talent for woodcut engraving. He was set to work on a number of book illustrations, including children’s books such as Tommy Trip’s History of Beasts and Birds, Fables by the late Mr Gay and Select Fables for Thomas Saint, a Newcastle printer.
After the completion of his apprenticeship, Bewick decided to enjoy his liberty, which in his Memoir he describes as ‘a time of great enjoyment’, by setting out alone on foot on a five hundred-mile tour of Scotland. On his return to Newcastle he immediately took a passage on a collier bound for London to try his luck in the ‘great city’. Bewick disliked London, although he could easily have set up business there, and he returned home to Newcastle as soon as he was able, resuming his association with Ralph Beilby in 1777 as his partner. He took on his younger brother John as his apprentice and they lived together during the whole of this time. (John eventually went to London, and worked there as a successful illustrator until illness drove him home to die in 1795.)
After the death of his parents in 1785 Thomas Bewick’s thoughts fixed on marriage and he settled on a local ‘lass’, Isabella ‘Bell’ Elliot, who ‘brought him a life of uninterrupted happiness.’ They were married in St. John’s Church, Newcastle, in 1786 and had four children: Jane, Robert Elliott, Isabella and Elizabeth (who were themselves destined to remain unmarried).
The engraving business was flourishing and Beilby and Bewick set out on an ambitious project to produce a General History of Quadrupeds. With high motives, this volume, intended to encourage the youth of the day into the study of natural history, was published in 1790 and was exceptionally well received, due in the most part to the freshness and accuracy with which many of the animals were portrayed.
With the success of Quadrupeds behind them they turned their attention to a companion work on birds and with this in mind Bewick travelled in July 1791 to Wycliffe Hall near Barnard Castle, the home of the late Marmaduke Tunstall. The partners had come into contact with Tunstall when he had commissioned the large engraving of the Chillingham Bull published in 1789, Bewick’s most celebrated woodcut. Tunstall had formed an extensive private museum collection, which included many stuffed birds, especially foreign species; and with the purpose of researching for the new book, Bewick was invited by William Constable, who had inherited the estate, to spend two months at Wycliffe in order to study the skins.
After sketching a large number of the birds, Bewick wrote to Beilby commenting on the enormity of the task and his dissatisfaction with the badly stuffed specimens. They decided to concentrate their book on the British Birds only and two volumes of the History of British Birds were published, Land Birds in 1797 and Water Birds in 1804. It is here we see Bewick at his best as a keen observer of wildlife, drawing in most part from his own experience or from fresh specimens sent to him by his many friends and admirers.
Independence and fame
The partnership of Beilby and Bewick ended acrimoniously in January 1798 and Bewick, retaining the engraving business, went on to publish further revised editions of Quadrupeds and British Birds. The business included a full range of engraving work of other kinds, such as engraving on glass and on silver, as well as copper engraving. There was a large volume of commercial jobbing work of these kinds in addition to commissions for wood-engraved illustration, such as for The Poetical Works of Robert Burns, printed and published in Alnwick by William Davison in 1808; the title page shows the phrase ‘ornamented with engravings on wood by Mr Bewick, from original designs by Mr Thurston.’ He turned his attention in 1812 to a new, but long-cherished wood-engraving venture, The Fables of Aesop and Others, eventually published in 1818. Fables and moral tales had formed a greater part of his boyhood reading and the interest had continued into his adult life, inspiring many of his vignettes or ‘tale-pieces’ as he called them.
Thomas Bewick died in 1828 at the age of seventy-five, leaving the engraving business to his son Robert and a wealth of watercolour and pencil drawings, woodblocks and engravings assiduously collected, over many years, by his family.
Robert continued to publish two further editions of the Birds in 1832 and 1847 (the latter edited by John Hancock, the ornithologist and taxidermist) and also Bewick’s last work, a large engraving on wood, Waiting for Death, published posthumously in 1832.
Pressed by his daughter Jane to produce an account of his life, Bewick had completed a manuscript of his Memoir which he commenced in 1822, but it was destined to lie fallow for many years, eventually being published, in a much edited state by Jane in 1862.( It has been re-published in the 1970s, edited by Iain Bain in a version following the original manuscript exactly, including Bewick’s occasionally erratic spelling.