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.1

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 farmers and, at thirteen, was apprenticed to the engraver Ralph Beilby in Newcastle. The Beilbys were a well-known family of distinguished craftsmen, and Beilby glass is still avidly collected. Beilby’s workshop did every sort of engraving: coats of arms on silver, engraving on glass, letter heads, etc. “I think,” Bewick wrote, “he was the best master in the World, for learning boys, for he obliged them to put their hands to every variety of work.” The Beilbys evidently considered themselves socially above the son of a farmer and tenant collier, as Bewick made clear when writing of his “attachment” to their daughter:

I felt for her & pined & fretted at so many barrs being in the way against any union of this kind—one of the greatest was the supposed contempt, in which I was held by the rest of the family, who I thought treated me with great hateur, ‘tho I had done every thing in my power to oblige them—I had like a stable boy waited upon their Horse & had cheerfully done every thing they wanted at my hands—

Bewick tells us that the passion he had from childhood for drawing and for nature determined his life. Newcastle had a prosperous trade in children’s books. When commissions came in for cutting woodblocks for such books, Beilby entrusted them to the young apprentice. “Some of the Fables cuts were thought of so well by my Master, that he in my name sent impressions of a few of them to be laid before the Society for the encouragement of Arts&c and I obtained a premium.” At the end of his apprenticeship, he took his walking tour in Scotland, and then visited London for nine months. He did not like the “extreme Grandeur & extreme wretchedness” of the city and went back to Newcastle, where his former master took him on as partner. Bewick pursued his specialty as designer and engraver of book illustrations, although he certainly engaged in the other work of the firm.


In 1790 he completed his first major work, the General History of Quadrupeds, for which Beilby had written the text. This didactic volume of popular zoology was intended principally for young people, but it had an immediate and enormous success with a public far beyond that of children’s books. Bewick worked briefly for William Bulmer of London, who was a printer and publisher of fine books—a business very different from the popular editions of Newcastle—but this venture into the higher sphere of bookmaking did not last.

In 1797, Bewick and Beilby published the first volume of the masterpiece A History of British Birds. Their association was soon after dissolved, owing largely, it would seem, to Bewick’s obstinate and rather puzzling refusal to acknowledge Beilby’s participation in compiling the text of British Birds. (Was this perhaps a way of getting even for “the proud man’s contumely”?) Both text and illustrations of the second volume on Water Birds, which appeared in 1804, are entirely Bewick’s work.

The ambitious Fables of Aesop appeared in 1818. Although disappointing in its general appearance (it “was not so well printed,” Bewick writes, “as I expected and wished”), this work contains some of his greatest vignettes. By this time Bewick was a famous man, but he remained in Newcastle for the rest of his life, except for two trips: one to Edinburgh in 1823, and, another, in 1828, to London—fifty-two years after his first visit. He liked the city no better the second time. He died in Newcastle the same year.

Bewick has always been thought of as the perfecter of the new technique of wood engraving. In the traditional woodcut, as practiced for instance by Dürer, the board used by the engraver is a normal plank, usually from a fruit tree, with the grain of the wood running horizontal to the surface; the artist works with a little knife. Wood engraving is done on harder wood, the heart of boxwood, and this is cut so that the grain is perpendicular to the surface—whence the name “end wood”; the engraver, works with a burin. Like a woodcut, the woodblock is printed from the surface, but it allows very fine work and, if printed carefully, will yield a vast number of impressions without significant loss of detail.

This technical development produced a revolution in the practice of book illustration. Most of the great books by the Romantics, especially those published in France after 1830, depend on it, and perhaps even more important, it made possible the publication of popular illustrated magazines such as the Illustrated London News. The new technique transformed visual information and thus helped to open what might be called the age of mass media.

While Bewick has long been considered the inventor of wood engraving, he himself made no such claim, and the museum curator Jacob Kainen has shown that, in fact, wood engraving was well established in England in the eighteenth century.2 Further, it is clear from the Memoir that Bewick had no practical familiarity with traditional woodcut. In discussing the work of Dürer, he is plainly trying to figure out how it was done, and he refers to “plank wood” as a curiosity.

In his “Note on Bewick’s Engraving,” Bain attaches much importance to Dr. Charles Hutton, a Newcastle mathematician, who claimed to have introduced Bewick and his master Ralph Beilby to the technique of burin engraving on end wood. It is hard to see what major role Hutton, who was not an engraver, could have played, beyond importing the necessary materials from London. In any case, the rudimentary technique of wood engraving was not the issue, but what Bewick did with it.

When Bewick was first introduced to wood engraving, it seems to have been a well-established practice, but it was used crudely for cheap illustrations; more expensive books used copper engraving. Bewick’s technical innovation consisted in making the work on the blocks much finer and, more important, in obtaining clear impressions of this fine work. The improved printing, in turn, was made possible by the use of “wove paper,” a relatively recent invention. (This paper, much smoother and more even than traditional “laid paper,” had a texture that did not interfere with the delicate lines of the new wood engravings.)

Bewick’s achievement, however, goes far beyond these matters of technique; he completely altered the way books were illustrated. During the eighteenth century books of quality were usually illustrated with copper engravings that looked like reproductions of paintings. They were commonly separated from the text by a framing line and by the plate mark, and most often (and most important) they were printed on separate pages. In addition to these illustrations, there were ornaments, head and tailpieces, often of an irregular shape and usually cut on woodblocks; since they did not illustrate the text, they could be used again and again. The copper engravings used for the illustrations had to be printed on a roller press very different from that used for typography. This required considerable labor and was very costly. By perfecting wood engraving which could be printed with the text, Bewick made this process available for sophisticated illustration.


He also abolished the distinction between illustration and ornament. His tailpieces are not simply ornamental; they are little scenes or landscapes. Moreover, in the Quadrupeds and British Birds, the major illustrations of birds and animals are not on separate pages, but appear at the top of a page of text like a headpiece, and are not enclosed by a frame. Like the tailpiece, the main image can now develop according to its inner rhythm, and it vanishes into the white paper so that we cannot assign it a precise limit.

Bewick discarded the clearly limited pictorial field with such natural ease that we are hardly conscious of his having done so. This was nevertheless a revolutionary change. The immediate aim was to create a more intimate association between images and typography, printing them together again, and to increase the graphic unity of the book. At the same time, however, Bewick drastically undermined the principle of traditional representation. Since the Renaissance it had been implicitly assumed that a picture is the image of a window or a mirror; this fundamental metaphor defined the relation between the pictorial space and the viewer. When an image is not enclosed, the position of the viewer can no longer be so clearly assigned. The representation floats like a cloud, and it appears as a fantasy of the mind rather than as a reflection of the exterior world—the formula of the Romantic “vignette.”3

It was an extraordinary legacy that Bewick left to Romantic illustrators. They carried it further, associated text and illustration even more intimately by introducing images at any place on the page, while Bewick’s were confined to the top or bottom (a residue of the ornaments that provided an enclosure or frame for the text). The famous edition of Paul et Virginie published by Curmer in 1838 with illustrations by Tony Johannot, Eugène Isabey, Paul Huet, and Ernest Meissonier brilliantly showed the variety and virtuosity of Romantic illustration. But this, as well as the masterpieces of Grandville and others, could not have been done were it not for Bewick.

His brilliant innovation is at the frontier between technique and artistic form. But Bewick, as Wordsworth said, was a poet. His great evocative power depended partly on the strategy by which he increased the expressive power of the ornamental tailpieces, turning them into finely observed little scenes or landscapes, without relating them directly to the text. The effect is described by Charlotte Brontë at the beginning of Jane Eyre.

I returned to my book—Bewick’s History of British Birds…. The words in these introductory pages connected themselves with the succeeding vignettes, and gave significance to the rock standing up alone in a sea of billow and spray; to the broken boat stranded on a desolate coast; to the cold and ghastly moon glancing through bars of cloud at a wreck just sinking.

I cannot tell what sentiment haunted the quite solitary churchyard with its inscribed headstone; its gate, its two trees, its low horizon, girdled by a broken wall, and its newly-risen crescent, attesting the hour of even-tide.

The two ships becalmed on a torpid sea, I believed to be marine phantoms.

The fiend pinning down the thief’s pack behind him, I passed over quickly: it was an object of terror.

So was the black, horned thing seated aloof on a rock, surveying a distant crowd surrounding a gallows.

Each picture told a story; mysterious often to my undeveloped understanding and imperfect feelings, yet ever profoundly interesting.

Although there is no explicit connection between the endpieces and the text, we feel a hidden one. An intimate feeling for nature unites Bewick’s familiar scenes, his glimpses of life, his visions, with the accompanying descriptions.

Bewick is not, I think, at his most original and profound in those pieces that attracted Jane Eyre and made her dream of moonlit cemeteries and Gothic ruins, stock images from the pre-Romantic warehouse. Rather he is most astonishing in the exact picture he gives of rural life, which is also vividly described in the Memoir—in the sense that he conveys of the effects of weather, of the succeeding seasons, of country people who move at ease in their natural setting and seldom strike us as being posed. Winter here is not the picturesque and scenic winter that one may find in Boucher or in Bewick’s contemporary Fragonard, but a truly cold day with the poor struggling against the cold. A vignette of two horses, immobile and resigned in the rain, is one of the most moving images of Romantic art, at once extremely real and as haunting as an apparition. One must look to Géricault for anything comparable.

Nevertheless, to compare Bewick with Géricault—or with Reynolds and Turner—makes the art historian uneasy. Somehow the comparison seems scandalous. The theory of genres and of their hierarchy is so ingrained in our thinking about art that it still determines our attitudes. In the abundant literature on Bewick, there are monographs by collectors, bibliographers, technicians, biographers. Sydney Roscoe has devoted a sizable volume, and a very good one, solely to the bibliography of Bewick’s three major works. Bewick is discussed in treatises and histories of book illustration and is dealt with briefly in books on prints. But he is absent from the history of art.

Clearly this neglect has to do with Bewick’s position as an assertively provincial craftsman on the fringes of the world of art. In the Memoir, he says he is proud of being an autodidact, without formal artistic training. “I never was a pupil to any drawing master and had not even a lesson from Wm Beilby or his brother Thomas….” Yet Bewick talks about art, gives advice freely, and shows no particular modesty in his judgments. Toward the end of his life, during a visit to Edinburgh in 1823, he was persuaded to make a lithograph. He chose to represent “a Horse in the long or full trot,”4 as the result of a discussion with a painter named Stowe about the correct representation of a horse’s motion, a subject of considerable artistic debate in the nineteenth century that was only settled by Muybridge’s photographic investigation. Without putting himself in the same category as “the very ingenious painter” Stowe, Bewick did not shrink from the debate:

this led to a close conversation, or rather lecture on the subject, in which I convinced him thoroughly of his being quite wrong, and indeed of the absurdity of his drawings, in this respect.

While socially he remained in his sphere of craftsmanship, Bewick felt that his understanding of nature and his ability to represent it made him an artist in the fullest sense of the word. There is little doubt, however, that the passionate admiration of certain writers—of Wordsworth in particular—reflects not only their regard for his work but also their sense of the disparity between his accomplishment and his artistic culture; his status was not that of an artist but of an inspired artisan, an artistic bon sauvage.

The bon sauvage is a disturbing figure because one can never be sure to what extent he realizes the subversive implications of his “naïve” intelligence. This quality is most apparent in one particular vignette of Bewick, a tiny landscape, about an inch wide, almost obliterated by a thumbprint. The image can be read in different ways and, in the end, remains ambiguous. The fingerprint is the distinctive mark of the artist, and we can see it as a gigantic signature overlaying most of the picture. (That the fingerprint had this meaning for Bewick is unquestionable. One also finds it engraved at the bottom of a receipt for the Fables of Aesop with the words “his mark.”) But the fingerprint, which is roughly actual size, also draws attention to the smallness of the “microcosmic” vignette that can be canceled by a single finger. Moreover, we can read the engraving as a landscape seen through a window, with the fingerprint on the glass pane. Since the picture field is not outlined, we remain incapable of assessing our exact relation to the image.

This vignette was created at the same time as the first works of Wordsworth and the early German Romantics. In a low voice to be sure, but with great purity, “the poet who lives on the banks of the Tyne” was able to express a new sensibility, that fusion of an objective and subjective viewpoint which has been called romantic irony.

This Issue

September 30, 1976