A Memoir of Thomas Bewick: Written by Himself
Readers of The New York Review have often seen the vignettes of Thomas Bewick. But even they may be somewhat surprised to read Ruskin’s bold claim: “I know no drawing so subtle as Bewick’s since the fifteenth century, except Holbein’s and Turner’s.” Wordsworth was still more eloquent:
Oh, now that the boxwood and the graver were mine,
Of the poet who lives on the banks of the Tyne,
Who has plied his rude tools with more fortunate toil
Than Reynolds e’er brought to his canvas and oil.
Indisputably, Bewick holds an important place in the history of book illustration. The literature about him is extensive, and his uneventful life is well documented thanks largely to Bewick himself, who, in old age, took the precaution of writing an account of it. We also have his correspondence and other documents, the best known of which is a literary portrait by James Audubon, the author of Birds of America, who traveled to Newcastle to meet the author of A History of British Birds. But for reasons I will try to explain, Bewick’s accomplishment as an artist—an accomplishment that justified Wordsworth’s admiration—has been badly neglected.
One must be therefore grateful to Iain Bain for his new edition of Bewick’s Memoir, which is the first to reproduce the original manuscript with its occasional grammatical errors and erratic punctuation, and which restores some passages cut in earlier editions. The flavor of Bewick’s plainspoken and often vigorous prose is much stronger here than in previous versions. For instance, here he recalls his walking through Scotland when he was young, staying with highlanders who had never “seen any person from England”:
—I had not got far from the House ‘till I was pursued by a beautifull young woman, who accosted me in baddish english, which she must have got off by heart just before she left the house, the purport of which was to urge my acceptance of the usual present [of scones]. This I wished to refuse, but she pressed it upon me, with such sweetness & with a face & neck blushed with scarlet, while I thought, at the same time she invited me to return—on which (I could not help it) I seized her & smacked her lips—she then sprung away from me, with her bare leggs, like a Deer, & left me fixed to the spot, not knowing what to do—I was particularly struck with her whole handsome appearance, it was a compound of loveliness, health & agility—her hair I think had been flaxen or light, but was tanned to a pale sandy brown, by being exposed to the Sun—this was tied behind with a ribbon & dangled down her back, and as she bounded along it flowed in the air—I had not seen her while I was in the House, & felt grieved because I did not hope ever to see her more—
Bewick was born in 1753 to a family of …