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The Life of Thomas Bewick

Final Comments

by John Rayner

His last work, the Memoir, he did not illustrate. Disappointed with the reception of the Fables, ageing, he began to set down the details of his early life and the observations and reflections of his later days, addressing his manuscript to his favourite daughter, Jane. Prose came as slowly to him as engraving, and he took six years to finish the Memoir; from which, as-from other contemporary notes and later reminiscences about him, the curious may gather some entertaining sidelights on his character and on the social life of his time. He was a typical Englishman of his sort, a lover and grower of roses, a grumbler that beer was not what it used to be in his youth, a reader of Smollett, fond of churchyards, greedy for eels. He was nearly seventy when he began the Memoir, but he was still upright and athletic. His benevolent face was marked with smallpox. His hair was still thick and black, except for a bald patch caused by a scald when a child, and he always worked with a hat or cap on. He wore plain brown clothes, with large flaps to his waistcoat, grey stockings of wool (or, sometimes, woven from nettlestalks), and large buckles to his shoes. In the evening he would be found at the local public house, reading the news, chewing tobacco - which he did all day, wedging it in his lower lip, the prominence of which became a characteristic feature - drinking with less reticence than in his youth, until his dog Cheviot reminded him that it was time to go home. He was a marvellous whistler, a reciter of dialect stories, accentuating his already broad Northumbrian, a singer of Scotch songs. At home his son would dance reels for company, and on solitary evenings one of his daughters would read to him Shakespeare or Scott. His taste in literature was clear-cut. Scott he approved highly, Byron disgusted him. His views on most things are to be found in the Memoir, in which he is sometimes a little sententious and his prose is not always perspicuous. The first half tells simply of his early life, but the second half is mostly given to the observations of a natural Whig, and chapters begin sometimes a little formidably - for example: "Without presuming to scan the intentions of Omnipotence, in his gifts to the human race . . . ", etc. Some of his remarks are sufficiently entertaining to merit quotation for the benefit of collectors of the slightly absurd, particularly those on the subject of women. "It would be an extreme weakness to maintain an opinion that all women are good," he says, after recording encounters with London prostitutes, whom he claims to have made cry by reminding them of their mothers, and who inevitably blamed base men for their downfall. "I am obliged to admit there are good and bad of each sex. I have often attempted to make an estimate of their comparative numbers, in which I have felt some difficulties. Sometimes my barometer of estimation has risen to the height of ten to one in favour of the fair sex; at other times it has fluctuated, and has fallen down some degrees lower in the scale; but, with me, it is now settled, and I cannot go lower than four good women to one good man. I have often wondered how any man could look healthy, beautiful, sensible and virtuous women in the face without considering them as the link between men and angels. For my part, I have often felt myself so overpowered with reverence in their presence that I have been almost unable to speak, and they must often have noticed my embarrassment. I could mention the names of many, but it might offend their delicacy." He jumps from subject to subject: the French Revolution, which, "like a whirlwind, swept the armies of despotism off the face of the earth"; politics - "I think if Mr. Pitt had proposed to make a law to transport all men who had pug noses and to hang all men over sixty years of age these persons (the knaves and their abettors who dominated the land) would have advocated it as a brilliant thought and a wise measure"; . religion - "I never read Hume on miracles; I did not need to do so. . . ."

But among the views, some of which read now a little pompously, are also to be found the odd facts and details which make a picture of the man - "very true of his sort and very enviable," as Carlyle said; modest about his own achievement, and not jealous of the secrets of his trade. He describes fully the technical innovation the discovery of which enabled him to put the art of wood-engraving on the path which led to the accomplishments of mid-Victorian days, the glories of the illustrated magazine, the sombre fantasies of Dore, the whimsicalities of Doyle. His invention was the simple one of lowering slightly that part of a woodblock which was background, thus emphasising the central figures; an effect requiring careful presswork. An elementary method, it would seem, and, like many inventions, it had been attempted not long before, but not followed up, and Bewick was the first to develop it seriously.

His technique was improved upon by those who came after him, but the charm of his pictures was not. He died at a time when, though workmanship in the various crafts was on its way to reaching its highest level, taste and design were already on the decline; and he was one of the last for many years who both designed and cut his own engravings. But he was not aware of the decline in taste and the Gadarene increase of ugliness which was to come after him, and the last words of his Memoir, written a week before his death in the winter of 1828, are magnificently sanguine: "We may be assured of this, that it is impossible to set bounds to the improvement of the human mind, and it is also equally so to limit the capabilities of the human frame when duly cultivated. ..." After these words come this engraving, showing a coffin being carried from Gherryburn, where he was born, to the ferryboat which is to carry it across to Ovingham churchyard, where he was soon to be buried; his last tailpiece.