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Thomas Bewick's Main Works

by John Rayner

It was on the day that his father died that he cut the first block for the first of the works which were to make him famous- A General History of Quadrupeds, published five years later in 1790. The Quadrupeds is a tall octavo volume, and was published in Newcastle, printed with the natural taste which provincial printers had not yet lost, during the transition period when the technical advances recently introduced by Baskerville in Birmingham were changing the appearance of books, and the slightly rugged "antique" look, as it were, of eighteenth-century books was giving way to a more modern clarity of impression. The Quadrupeds is by no means as well printed as were the London productions of Bulmer already mentioned of a half-dozen years later; the small unevennesses of the paper give sometimes a slightly rusty effect to those parts of the engravings which should be black, and some of the contrasts of light and shade are a little lost; but the Quadrupeds has a great charm, and the woodcuts, of which many examples are given in this book, give more pleasurable satisfaction than would the glossiest of photographs. Such animals as Bewick did not know (and those he did are naturally the best), or could not see in the travelling menageries which then brightened England's countryside, he took from an illustrated English condensation of Buffon's Natural History, and some of these are not altogether accurate. He cut most of the engravings in the evenings after the day's work, chipping away at his boxwood blocks while clergymen friends would drop in to watch and engage him in theological argument, and join in a tankard of ale. The text of the Quadrupeds is by his partner and former master, Ralph Beilby, and Bewick's only part in it was a supervisory eye. The book was at once a success, and new editions soon succeeded each other, with revisions which included not only additions but also emasculations, a reminder that the prudery of the last century was gathering power long before Queen Victoria began her reign, before she was born. The word emasculations is used literally as well as metaphorically; for example, the Lancashire Bull of the first edition became the Lancashire Ox in later editions, by small but radical alterations in the text and in the block. A similar sop to the squeamish was made after the appearance, seven years later, of the first volume of the History of British Birds, when in one particular tailpiece - the special suitability of the picture to the word in this case was no doubt not unremarked by Bewick's straightforward sense of humour - showing a tumble-down outdoor privy in use, a couple of planks were decently inserted in later editions; and this instance of what Ruskin described as Bewick's "love of ugliness" has, of course, provided a "point" for book collectors.

Not a few of the tailpieces show the natural functions of man and beast; they are robust records of a robust existence, and they range from rustic pranks to village funerals, dealing with country life, piscatorial, pastoral, superstitious, the wind and the rain, with morals sometimes to be drawn. They need a careful glance, for in many of them the smallest detail has a bearing on the situation which is presented; and in many cases the characters concerned are real people. When Bewick shows an old soldier's coat hanging on a scarecrow it is because he saw it as a boy, and knew the veteran who had worn it at Minden; and in this vignette, showing fowlers after a hare in the snow, the distant figure behind the hedge is Bewick himself, and the man in the foreground, who is so carefully covering the lock of his gun with the tail of his coat, an old friend from boyhood:

Bewick enjoyed cutting these tailpieces more than anything else he did, and he looked upon them as recreation after his daily work.

It was while the Quadrupeds was still in preparation, when it was nearly finished, that he received a commission to do the block which he himself considered his best - the Chillingham Bull, which is shown on pages 32 and 33. This was a bull in a herd of wild cattle belonging to a naturalist correspondent, and Bewick was obliged to stalk the animal in order to make a sketch in the park at Chillingham. This particular bull was a solitary and vanquished rival of the monarch of the herd, which he could not get near enough to sketch. When the block was finished only a few impressions were taken before a disaster happened to it - it was left in the workshop near the window over the week-end and by Monday morning the sun had split it; but it was eventually clamped together again. A smaller version appears in the Quadrupeds.

The success of the Quadrupeds encouraged Bewick to undertake what was to be his best and most famous work, the History of British Birds, the two volumes of which appeared separately, the first, Land Birds, in 1797, the second, Water Birds, in 1804. Again progress was slow, and interrupted by day-to-day jobs and special commissions; during this period he was busy engraving (on copper) banknotes, which he designed to be proof against forgery - he was offered a job by the Bank of England, but preferred Newcastle still, sending, nevertheless, his recommendations. The text of the first volume of the Birds, like that of the Quadrupeds, was by his partner Beilby, though Bewick took a much closer supervisory interest. But during the interval between the publication of the two volumes Beilby retired, and Bewick bought his interest in the business, and had to do both illustrations and text of the second. He describes his labours as "severe confinement and application", in which he was supported by his "extreme pleasure in depicting the aerial wanderers of the British Isles". In the Birds he did not copy from other illustrated books, but drew from live birds or specimens shot for him; even stuffed birds he found unsatisfactory; and in his garden in Newcastle he kept for some time, among other models,a corncrake, that crepuscular skulker of our summer grasses, to be seen on page 50. The Birds was published at a slightly higher price, and there were more printed than in the case of the Quadrupeds, and copies are likely to be more sumptuously bound: Bewick was beginning to be known, and the book was being talked of long before publication. Amateurs of natural history were steadily increasing in number; England was undergoing her Natural History Revolution, parallel with, but less noticed than, the Industrial Revolution. The engravings for the Birds are, from the natural history point of view, superior to those of the Quadrupeds, and the tyro birdwatcher even to-day will not find them altogether unpractical, for all the inaccuracies of detail which may try the patience of the scientist. Bewick so often conveys the character of birds, if the word may be used without falling into anthropomorphism; the clownish self-confidence of the starling, the self-consciousness of the yellow-hammer, the alert aggressiveness of the robin, the modesty of the wren, the apprehension of the quail. New editions were necessary every few years of Bewick's lifetime, and the sixth, published in 1826, was the last revised by him, with all the additional cuts, both of birds and tailpieces, which had from time to time been added since the first edition. The blocks stood up well to the repeated printings, though some suffered a little, the blackbird, for example, having his bill renovated as many as six times.
After the Birds he continued with his daily work, but his output diminished: he was already fifty-one when the second volume was published; and he produced nothing afterwards which equalled it either in scope or execution. He did illustrations for volumes of poetry, such as those for Thomson's Seasons and Burns's poems; and his most important later work was a comparative failure when it appeared in 1818 - an Ęsop's Fables, which he had contemplated during a long and serious illness in 1812, an illness which left him with hands swollen by gout. He found also that the fine engraving and the long use of a glass in one eye was beginning to strain his sight, and most of the blocks of the Fables were cut by pupils from his drawings. A curious remedy for eye-strain was recommended to him by his doctor, that he plunge his head in cold water every morning, which he did with successful results. The illustrations to the Fables, which Bewick published for the instruction of the "Youth of the British Isles", have less of the broad and bold technique of his handiwork in the Birds, and the imaginary situations and characters have sometimes a stiffness which borders on the ludicrous. But there are plentiful tailpieces; one of which so impressed Ruskin that he called upon a friend who was a professor of anatomy so that he could inspect a skeleton of a frog and discover how exactly accurate was Bewick's delineation of the twin peaks which are the dominating characteristic of a frog's back.