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Early Life of Thomas Bewick

by John Rayner

Old Thomas Bewick was a farmer and owned a colliery in Northumberland, and his son Thomas was born at Eltringham, a dozen miles east of Newcastle and a little south of Hadrian's Wall, in 1753. His childhood was a lusty one, from his earliest memories of hacking coal by candlelight in his father's mine until he set off to be prenticed at the age of fourteen in Newcastle. His own story of his schooldays, told in his autobiographical Memoir, makes the text for which his woodcuts are the illustrations, and we have a picture composed of innumerable details of the northern English countryside of the second half of the eighteenth century. Through the little window in his bedroom in the long low farmhouse where he was born came the murmuring of the stream beyond the orchard of cherry and plum trees, and the cawing of rooks from the tall oak and the ash trees beyond; and he went to school with reluctance, preferring the farm labours of spreading the night's molehills over the pasture or of watching sheep; and preferring still more the anguished delights of truancy, inevitably followed by paternal thrashings, running about the countryside naked in imitation of the savages in Robinson Crusoe, riding bareback on wild horses, fishing; storing up pictures which he was later to carve patiently at his bench out of wood, and to describe in not discreditable prose; memories, for example, of fishing:

"Well do I remember mounting the stile which gave the first peep of the curling or rapid stream, over the intervening, dewy, or daisy-covered holme-bounded by the early sloe, and the hawthorn-blossomed hedge, and hung in succession with festoons of the wild rose, the tangling woodbine, and the bramble, with their bewitching foliage; and the fairy ground, and the enchanting music of the lark, the blackbird, the throstle, and the blackcap, rendered soothing and plaintive by the cooings of the ringdove, which altogether charmed, but perhaps retarded, the march to the brink of the scene of action, with its willows, its alders, or its sallows, where early I commenced the day's patient campaign."
Nature he knew, and his pictures are from nature - "the sole stimulant with me was the pleasure I derived from imitating natural objects" - at a time when the English were discovering the fauna of their own land, when Gilbert White was busy with the twenty-year-long gestation of his masterpiece. Bewick's sensibility about the killing of animals was perhaps in advance of his time, certainly more acute than Gilbert White's. He describes his emotion when as a boy out hunting he was first to catch a hare, and held it screaming in his arms, and when he yielded it to the huntsman it was decided to break one of its legs and give it a short start, to provide more sport. And he tells also of how he threw a stone at a bullfinch and killed it, but picked it up before it died, and it "looked piteously" up at him. That was the last bird he killed, but his sensibility was personal, and many birds were killed by others for him; his desire for accuracy in natural history was not hampered by sentiment, nor was his taste for experiment, and he was not prevented from putting a wasp into a spider's web to see which would win, or from putting mustard on to a piece of meat and throwing it to a dog adept at catching, to see which emotion would thereafter sway the dog-caution or greed. (Caution won, and the dog stopped catching things.)

The setting out for Newcastle to be prenticed was a sad parting from the countryside he loved. He was bound to an engraver, whose business was the engraving of ornamental silver, arms, crests, cyphers, billheads, and so on, and Bewick was put to etching sword blades, engraving door-knockers, and doing the preliminary rough work on woodblocks which his master finished; though not much in the way of woodcutting came to the business, and such as did his master began to pass to him, not himself being good at it or having great taste for it. A woodcut of the "George and Dragon" which Bewick did drew praise, and orders for woodcuts increased, particularly for children's books, and the following is an example of the comparative crudity of his earlier cuts, which were nevertheless no more crude than the current standard of woodcutting in England or on the Continent. By the end of his apprenticeship he had reached a point of skill which impressed his master so much that he sent impressions of some of the blocks which Bewick had engraved for Gay's Fables to the Society for the Encouragement of Arts (the C.E.M.A., as it were, of a century and a half ago), which awarded him a premium of seven guineas for this cut of the Old Hound:


When he was freed from his apprenticeship at twenty-one he went home, and then took a holiday, a walking tour into Scotland; and after that went to London, where he worked for a while, and it was three years before he returned to Newcastle and set up in business. He had been an industrious prentice, and the small Crusoe with a snot-glazed sleeve had become a tough young man skilled in a trade which he liked and was suited for. He had made some valuable friends; among them a bookbinder, who gave him access to books he could not afford; William Bulmer, who became a great English printer in the great days of English printing at the beginning of the nineteenth century, who as a young man in Newcastle took proofs of Bewick's cuts, and who later employed Bewick and his younger brother John for some of his de luxe publications; and an entertaining eccentric, Thomas Spence, for whom Bewick cut matrices for type of the new letters Spence had invented for the reform of spelling. Some of his friends had found their way to London before him, so that he was not entirely lost when the collier in which he had sailed from Newcastle anchored below London Bridge in the autumn of 1776, after a journey through calms and storms which had taken three weeks, sliding to its destination slowly past the Thames hulks, newly anchored repositories of convicts thus disposed of because the recently begun war with the American colonists had stopped deportation. A waterman took him up river to the stairs opposite Temple Bar, and Bewick set foot in the great city- and hated it. To-day the London of then has a fascinating attraction, a London in which Gibbon had just published his The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, in which the Adelphi that was had not long been built, in which the head of a '45 rebel was still to be seen stuck on Temple Bar; the streets newly paved; Knightsbridge a village; the then European enemy satisfactorily defeated all over the world; Dr. Johnson growling his pathological rudenesses; a tiny tidy city, as we would now think, placid under Canaletto skies, lurid under Hogarth flares, noisy with street cries, smelling of horses and pomades, with the city churches unobscured by office buildings; worth its dangers, which included highwaymen, footpads, gambling, duels, gout, and the pox. But Bewick was stubbornly provincial and spent most of his time with Newcastle friends, passing his evenings at "The George" in Brook St., of which the hostess was a Cumberland woman, visiting the "Hole-in-the-Wall" in Fleet Street, a haunt of Novo-castrians, where he was able to read the Newcastle papers; on Sundays he would go to the exquisite St. Andrew's, Holborn, a Wren church although it had escaped the earlier fire, and now a burnt shell of beauty; and during the week he found plenty of work to do for the printers of Clerkenwell and St. Paul's Churchyard. But all the time he was longing to get back to Northumberland, he could not bear the extremes of riches and wretchedness of London. Just as there are those to be found now who wish for the London even of Carlyle's abuse rather than the overgrown monster which is probably the ugliest capital city the world has ever seen, just as Carlyle hated the squalor of the London of his time - just as Horace Walpole at the time of Bewick's visit was complaining of the mushroom building which was spoiling the city, so Bewick complained of London as a "province covered with houses", and hankered for his Tyneside scenery; and, after a last party at "The George'', left for home, before nine months were gone, determined never to return; and did not in fact do so until his old age, when the experiment was again unsuccessful.

He intended to set up alone in Newcastle, and had brought enough work with him from London to last for two years, but he was persuaded to go into partnership with his former master, though he always regretted a little his plan to be a solitary. The medals and premiums and successes of his pupils were gratifying, but did not quite make up for the "envy and ingratitude" of some of them. He took his younger brother John, younger by seven years, as his prentice, and, apart from a tendency to keep bad company, he was well pleased with him. John Bewick has been regarded as a wood-engraver of great promise who died young, but he was not as skilled an engraver or as good an artist as his brother Thomas, and he did not die so very young. By thirty-five he had had time to emerge from the comparative crudity of style the chief charm of which is its naivety - this is a fair example of a block drawn and cut by himself:

He was known perhaps because he was for some years in London, while Thomas Bewick was obstinately content in Newcastle. It must be remembered that the productions of such a workshop as Bewick's were a communal affair; some blocks would be drawn by one brother and cut by the other, the rough work would be done by pupils, who would also, if they showed aptitude, draw and finish designs- on the same principle as the schools of Renaissance painters; and we cannot, for example, be sure in all cases that the engravings reproduced in this book are the work of Thomas Bewick from first to last, but he had a hand to a great extent in nearly all, and certainly had the last word in all of them. Two books from Bulmer's Shakespeare Printing Office in which John Bewick's work is to be found are the Poems by Goldsmith and Parnell, 1795, and Somervile's The Chase, 1796. For an example of the division of labour, of the five large blocks and eight vignettes in the Goldsmith and Parnell, four of the large blocks were from designs by pupils and cut by Thomas Bewick, the remaining one designed and cut by John Bewick; and of the vignettes four were cut by a pupil, two by Thomas, and two by John Bewick. The story is that George III was so impressed by this book, in particular by one of the large cuts engraved by Thomas Bewick, that he could not believe that they were woodcuts, and had to be shown the actual blocks to prove that they were not engravings on copper, an indication not so much of an indiscriminating eye in the monarch as of the state of the art of wood-engraving until Bewick began his small renaissance. The cuts in Bulmer's charming quarto of The Chase were all except one designed by John and all engraved by Thomas Bewick, after his brother's death. John Bewick gives an impression of having been influenced by the fashionable Gothic-Romantic sighing for cypress-shaded ruins under melancholy moonlight; and of attempting to be rather more of an "artist" and less a recorder of nature than his brother; the extent of his failure can be seen from the illustrations to The Chase, in which his drawing is inferior to his brother's execution.

But the illustrations for these two books were done just before John Bewick's death, and at a time when Thomas Bewick was doing his best work. For him in the meantime there had been a long and gradual building up of facility, a development of style, a constant adding to the drawers full of woodblocks of all sorts and sizes; blocks for children's books, ABGs, natural histories, moral tales and fables, advertisements, billheads. Thomas Bewick kept to his morning-to-night industry at his bench on weekdays, and each week-end walked the twelve miles home to his parents, proud of his regularity, and never missed a visit, whatever the weather, from the time when he set up in Newcastle in 1777 until his parents died eight years later. It was these four hundred and more week-ends which he put into his tailpieces, the vignettes, the miniature landscapes which are a chief delight of his work, and which he with the benevolent facetiousness of the old refers to in his Memoir as "tale-pieces". These week-end walks kept him healthy and strong, a broad six-footer with his cudgel, never changing his clothes when soaked by rain or wading rivers, consciously tough, with no spare fat, and never an illness, sleeping rolled up in a blanket by an open window on the hardest mattress he could find; bringing to mind a more eccentrically austere naturalist of a generation later, Charles Waterton, also a north-countryman, who always slept on the floor-boards with a beechwood block for pillow. Bewick had read as a prentice the much reprinted treatise by the sixteenth-century Venetian advocate of discipline and temperance, Gornaro, who died a centenarian, and it was not until he was twenty-eight that he ever tasted brandy; he softened a little his austerity when he married after his parents' death.