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Introduction to the Life of Thomas Bewick

by John Rayner

The figure drinking in this vignette is said to be Bewick himself.

On a December evening getting on for a hundred years ago old Thomas Carlyle sat up and read a book before going to bed, very likely turning over the pages by the lamplight in the attic study in Cheyne Row which he had vainly tried to isolate from the noises and mists of riverside London by building double walls. The book had been published in Newcastle three years before, and had been sent to him as a book which was making new admirers for its long dead author. It was Thomas Bewick's Memoir, written in the 1820's, but treasured unpublished until 1862.

The next morning Carlyle wrote to his friend John Ruskin and summed up Bewick in a sentence which is a fair estimate: "Not a great man at all; but a very true of his sort, a well completed and a very enviable-living there in communion with the skies and woods and brooks, not here in ditto with the London Fogs, the roaring witchmongeries, and railway yellings and howlings."

But Ruskin held Bewick in less cautious esteem; and though a study of Ruskiniana will usually discover contradictory judgments about most artists, his pronouncements about Bewick are consistently enthusiastic. He prescribed the Memoir for all his drawing students, and spoke of its author in the terms of a publisher's blurb- "the magnificent artistic power, the flawless virtue, veracity, tenderness, the infinite humour of the man". He compared Bewick to Botticelli and Paul Veronese. He claimed that no drawing had been as subtle as Bewick's since the fifteenth century, except Holbein's and Turner's. The only qualification of his admiration was that Bewick, untrained ("unhelped, but also unharmed"), could draw only the lower classes of creation: he could draw the poor, but not the rich; he could draw a pig, but not a Venus; because, as Ruskin explained it, Bewick was not a gentleman; and he regretted a little Bewick's "love of ugliness which is in the English soul", to be found also in Hogarth and Cruikshank. But he backed his opinion by paying 73 guineas for half a dozen of Bewick's tiny watercolours, and another 43 guineas for thirty of his pencil drawings - spending what was the equivalent of at least double to-day.

A contemporary comment by a less extravagant spinner of words is to be found in Lyrical Ballads;

O now that the genius of Bewick were mine,
And the skill which he learned on the banks of the Tyne!
Then the Muses might deal with me just as they chose,
For I'd take my last leave both of verse and of prose.

Wordsworth's estimate is high, though expressed less earnestly than Ruskin's. There is a tendency to extremeness in the admirers of Bewick, amounting sometimes to idolatry, a tendency due in his lifetime partly to his personal character, and, since his death, in some measure to his suitability as a subject for book collectors - a fact which would distress him, since he disapproved of bibliomania.

Perhaps Carlyle's summing-up is a little less than generous. Bewick was a first-class English craftsman, who spent a long and hard-working life in the patient perfection of a skill, an innovator who raised both the technical and artistic standards of his craft, and who contributed considerably to the expression of the English scene and character in his vigorous delineation of the minutiae of country life. He himself came to regard woodcuts as "a department of the arts", and one in the renaissance of which he had a part, but he started simply because of a passion for drawing so strong as to survive his schooldays and to decide his parents in their choice of a trade for him. He was never taught how to draw; but filled the margins of his schoolbooks with sketches; and, when they were full, chalked his pictures on gravestones in the village churchyard and on the hearthstone by the face-scorching firelight at home in the evenings; graduating to paper and pen and ink and brambleberry juice, drawing birds and animals and the scenes of nature for his neighbours' cottage walls. The only pictures he ever saw when a boy were the four local public-house signboards and the king's arms in the village church. His own house was for a short time licensed as a public house and displayed the sign of the Seven Stars, but this sideline of his father's was unsuccessful.