England’s Great Neglected Artist

A ‘tail-piece’ by Thomas Bewick, from his History of British Birds, 1797

“Thomas Bewick is an inventor, and the first wood-cutter in the world!” John James Audubon, the great recorder of America’s birds, saluted his equivalent in Britain in these terms in his journal at the end of a visit to Newcastle upon Tyne in 1827. In other words, Bewick was not simply an engraver of wooden blocks for printing, he was, in 1820s terms, one of the men of the day. This was, as Bewick himself wrote, an “age of mechanical improvement.”1

Two years earlier, not forty miles from Newcastle, George Stephenson had presented the world with the first public railway. Whether he was to be thanked likewise for the safety lamp that was revolutionizing the coal mines of the region, or whether credit here was due to the charismatic Humphry Davy, was a matter for loud debate. Busts of James Watt and Benjamin Franklin, earlier deliverers of innovation, stood on the mantelpiece of every social optimist. Keeping them company were the inventors of the arts. Audubon, reflecting on “the intrinsic value…to the world” of the seventy-three-year-old Northumberland man he had just met, compared him to Walter Scott, the “learned” and “brilliant” fictionalizer of British history.

Thomas Bewick, however, was for Audubon “a son of Nature.” Publishing his surveys of mammals and then of British birds between 1790 and 1804, with hundreds of species pictured in wood engravings of unprecedented precision and vitality, Bewick had offered modern readers an expanded appreciation of the creatures with whom they shared the earth. An equally important factor in his rise to fame were the “tail-pieces” concluding each species entry, tiny and captivating distillations of life in the British countryside. Bewick had been able to “invent”—to come upon, in the verb’s original sense—this new wealth of imaginative experience not because he was learned like Scott, but rather because he was singularly well acquainted with the fields, woods, and hills, having been brought up on a farmstead ten miles up the Tyne from Newcastle.

We no longer nowadays salute “Nature” with the unhesitating confidence invested in the concept by Audubon or by writers such as William Wordsworth, another of Bewick’s numerous admirers. And yet Diana Donald’s impressive recent study, The Art of Thomas Bewick, demonstrates the surprising resilience of the American visitor’s assessment. At the end of her scrupulous inquiry into the political, religious, and cultural circumstances in which Bewick’s work was undertaken, the Northumbrian natural historian still stands, however we interpret him, as an innovator rather than an imitator, and as an artist who worked, as much as any artist can, from freshly won experience rather than by cleaving to cultural precedent.

For Audubon to hail Bewick as “the first wood-cutter” was to recognize that he had used wood to deliver effects never realized before. Back in the Renaissance, printmakers in Europe…

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