chapter  13
26 Pages

Thomas Bewick: ‘The poet who lives on the banks of the Tyne’

On 1 October 1767 two fourteen-year-old boys, Kit Gregson and Thomas Bewick, rode eastward with their fathers from the village of Ovingham along the banks of the river Tyne towards the city of Newcastle. It was a momentous journey, for they were both about to embark on a new life as apprentices to tradesmen in the city. Excitement and apprehension mingled with sadness. Thomas recalled it as ‘a most grievous day … to part from the country & to leave all its beauties behind me … I can only say my heart was like to break, and as we passed away – I inwardly bid farewell, to the whinney wilds – to Mickley Bank, the Stob Cross hill, to the water banks, the woods & to particular trees.’ As they left the scenes of Thomas’s youth, his father, a minor landowner and coal miner, spoke to him of the importance of leading a virtuous and Christian life: ‘he began & continued a long while … on the importance & the inestimable value of honour and honesty … He next turned his discourse on another topic … Religion – & pressed this also upon me in a way I did not forget.’ A few hours later at the Cock Inn on The Side, a steep street that led from the Tyne to the city, his friend Kit was apprenticed to Messrs Doughty & Wiggins, chemists and druggists. Thomas, in deference to his passion for drawing on flagstones and sketching in the margins of his schoolbooks, was bound for seven years to Ralph Beilby, a prosperous engraver. Thus began the career of a man whose wood-engraving was to bring him international

fame and to lure doting admirers to his workshop in the churchyard of St Nicholas’s, Newcastle, from as far afield as Germany and North America. Bewick’s illustrated natural histories and narrative vignettes of rural life excited the praise of poets like Wordsworth, the admiration of such artists as William Sharpe, Benjamin Robert Haydon and James Northcote (who painted a portrait of two children reading Bewick’s Quadrupeds, Figure 13.1), and the later acclaim of critics like John Ruskin and Thomas Carlyle. Several novels allude to his work, most notably Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, and contemporaries compared his work to that of Shakespeare, James Thomson, William Cowper, Robert Burns and Sir Joshua Reynolds. Such was his later fame that his portrait was exhibited at the Royal Academy, widely distributed as an engraving, and reproduced in literary and naturalist magazines. His bust was the first to grace the Newcastle Literary and Philosophical Society. Bewick’s fame rested on three publications. His A General History of Quadrupeds (1790), an

illustrated history of four-footed beasts, went through eight editions in Bewick’s lifetime. His equally successful two-volume History of British Birds, a more complex and scientific study, appeared in 1797 and 1804; it was reprinted six times before his death in 1828. Lastly the Fables of Aesop, a project conceived during a nearly fatal illness in 1812

and finally published in 1818, combined Bewick’s love of nature with his penchant for trenchant moralizing. As Bewick himself recognized, these three lavish books transformed his life. Such fame and fortune seemed far from likely to the young apprentice whose early

working life was dominated by the commercial engraving done at Beilby’s workshop. Long before he achieved public recognition Bewick had served out his apprenticeship, worked in London (which he hated), served Beilby as a journeyman, and become his partner (in 1777), taking his brother John as an apprentice. Looking back over his career in a letter written in 1819, he commented, ‘I … date the Quadrupeds to be my commencement of Wood Engraving worthy of attention. Before that period I was engaged in the general work of a Country Engravers Shop; one hour employed on Copper, another on Wood, another on Silver, another on Brass, another on Steel – indeed ready and willing to undertake any description of work.’ Such was the task of the apprentice engraver; such indeed was most engraving work

done in any city. The business records of Beilby and of Bewick and Beilby reveal the astonishing range of tasks performed in their shop. They engraved mottoes on rings, ciphers on spoons and seals, names or crests on coffee pots, tea sets, punch ladles, silver services, candlesticks, watch cases, dog collars, whip handles, horse bridles, hair-combs and lockets. Door plates, fireplaces and gentlemen’s carriages were inscribed with insignia and monograms. The workshop even engraved buttons for the uniforms of the local militia (Figure 13.2). Besides working directly on metal, Bewick and Beilby prepared plates and cuts for work on paper: bookplates, insurance certificates, banknotes, trade and shop cards, bills and invoices, bar and tavern bills, receipts for the coal trade and decorative

mottoes and borders for the handbills and newspapers produced by the local press. They also worked as book illustrators, producing engravings for works which recorded Captain Cook’s voyages and for several children’s books, most notably fables and Tommy Trip’s History of Beasts and Birds, published by the Newcastle printer and newspaper proprietor Thomas Saint. The widespread use of cheap engraving as an advertising medium and form of

decoration meant that Beilby and Bewick did work for many different sorts of business. In addition to the printers, booksellers and gold-and silversmiths who commanded so much of their time, the workshop dealt with tea dealers, grocers, upholsterers, watchmakers, ironmongers, woollen drapers, chemists, gun manufacturers, oculists, inn and tavern proprietors, shippers, musical instrument-makers, brass founders and plumbers, cabinetmakers, bankers, coal merchants, wine and spirit merchants, a portrait painter, a drawing

master and an umbrella manufacturer. Beilby and Bewick’s workshop – together with two other engraving businesses in the town – produced the visual language of Newcastle’s commerce. Beilby and Bewick’s success as commercial artists depended upon their skill in

creating visually appealing works that communicated information clearly. Their engravings advertised circulating libraries and musical instruction and told people about the city’s cultural and social life, its concerts, balls and assemblies, its clubs and associations (Figure 13.3). For their private customers – farmers and tradesmen, gentry and merchants – they offered marks of ownership: names, mottoes and insignia to identify the objects on which they were engraved as someone’s special property, transforming a commonplace or standardized object into something unique. A teapot or haircomb bought at the silversmith or jeweller became a special gift, an item like no other. Beilby and Bewick’s business records reveal a steady flow of customers who waited in the shop as an apprentice engraved their names or ciphers, or left objects, large and small, to be customized. Engraving work required skill and great strength. Because of its difficulty engravers

enjoyed high status and, if they managed their shop well, a comfortable income. But for someone with Bewick’s restless ambition this was not enough. To be of greater consequence an engraver had to enter into the community’s civic life and become a local worthy; and to achieve a reputation beyond the horizon that bounded the city, needed to claim the status of an artist.