Wood Engraver from Newcastle

Next to my bed is a book I have purposely taken over 3 years to finish: Nature’s Engraver: A Life of Thomas Bewick by Jenny Uglow. I found it at Page One Books 3 summers ago while searching for naturalist journals for Art Adventures camp. Picking the hard cover book out of the row, immediately the ink line drawing of a bird on the cover endeared me – this was the kind of drawing I would like to do – and made me realize I wanted to know the story of the unknown artist who did it.

© 2007 Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York

Of course, I realized the drawing was a woodcut later – that best of looks with line so finely describing subject.

We have friends who run an etching studio and my spouse runs a letterpress printing press. Imagining the life of a man of the 18th century who created illustrations for the mass-production of the day – printing by hand – allowed me to get closer to these presses in my life. I could fantasize how our life would have been centuries ago if we were constantly engaged with printing work. And to be able to draw every day? What a life to imagine.

Thomas Bewick’s life on the eastern coast of England north near the border with Scotland is revealed by biographer Nancy Uglow from her study of his many letters. I did not expect to get such an up close view of his mind nor his tastes. Bewick sided with the colonists in our revolution that was sucking funds from his country. He was anti-war, and he supported people wanting republic over monarchy. His favorite past-time was spending weeks walking overland observing wildlife up over the border in Scotland. These outings formed the backbone to his dedication to illustrating the first collections of illustrations of wildlife – forerunners of future field guides. His generation saw huge changes in land ownership on that island …
page 83:
“…Bewick mourned the loss of fells and wild spaces. ‘The poorman was rooted out,’ he wrote later of enclosure, ‘and the various mechanics of the villages deprived of all benefit of it.’ Like so many, he took Goldsmith’s lament in “The Deserted Village’ of 1770 as his anthem:
Sweet smiling village, loveliest of the lawn
Thy sports are fled, and all thy charms withdrawn;
Amidst thy bowers the tyrant’s hand is seen,
And desolation saddens all thy green;
One only master grasps the whole domain,
And half a tillage stints thy smiling plain.

And his choice of subject matter portrayal in his woodcuts subtlely showed his values on justice …
“At the end of his first major book, the General History of Quadrupeds, Bewick placed a telling vignette. A boy holding out his hat leads two blind fiddlers past the smooth walls of a new estate, adorned with urns and busts: the land is firmly guarded, with a signboard on the wall announcing ‘Steel Traps and Gins.’ But beneath the sign an ominous crack has appeared. Some day that wall will shatter and fall.” (Nature’s Engraver by Jenny Uglow)
Thusly the wood engraver shared his opinions through his illustrations.

Only just now, while writing this and looking at images in a google search, look at what I find in a fellow WordPress blogger’s post —
–someone whose impressions of the book are so similar to mine. Please read it – I own up that this writer does her subject a finer job of praising. I do realize that taking 3 years to finish a book will do that – render the subject matter a wee bit foggy.

But you can see she also says she didn’t want to finish it!

Bewick's Wren photo by Minette Layne via Wikipedia

Thomas Bewick, 'The Ant and the Grasshopper', wood-engraved illustration, from 'Fables of Aesop and others', 1818. Printed by E. Walker for Thomas Bewick, Newcastle. National Art Library Pressmark: G.28.Y.1b

above image from http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/a/aesops-fables/

If it weren’t for Teresa Evangeline’s post on Hokusai, which i read tonight, i wouldn’t have made this post about Bewick.
Thank you, Teresa.


4 Responses to “Wood Engraver from Newcastle”

  1. November 13, 2011 at 6:50 am

    What a lovely, evocative post. I came here from a post celebrating an exhibit of Native American art in Cooperstown, New York – particularly, a woven basket which required fourteen months to complete.

    What the basket weaver and Bewick had in common, of course, was a willingness to accept that creation takes time – even a baby takes nine months, for heaven sake! I hear so many would-be writers saying, “I just don’t have the time…”, even while they fill their hours with Facebook, Twitter, television and texting. Who knows what any of us could create if we took the time?

    One of my treasures is an 1865 engraving of the flooded Bayou Teche in Louisiana – not the original, but an illustration printed in “Harper’s Weekly”. The detail is exquisite – and it certainly does as well as any photograph at capturing the moment.

    As a side note, one of my friends spent his life traveling the Gulf Coast, first setting type and later repairing the presses of newspapers in a half-dozen states. One of the funniest things I ever heard him say was, “When you’re setting type by hand, you think a little more carefully about what you include and what you don’t”. No wonder so much silliness abounds on the net!

    • November 13, 2011 at 9:13 am

      Bless your heart, Linda – so many neat responses you’ve given here — “even a baby takes nine months to complete” (!), your Gulf Coast typographer friend’s comment — the truth, totally!!
      Thanks to you on a Sunday morn!

  2. November 13, 2011 at 12:24 pm

    Cirrelda, what a prize of a book you have in Bewick. I savor books, too. Not wanting to finish, reading every word. Then, we’ll read them again, won’t we? I like naturalist’s journals so much. Really a great category to collect in and read at anytime. Yes, the telling vignette — someday the wall will fall with that crack getting bigger. I like the small towns of the past, even the small towns of today, particularly in New Mexico. We will eventually be going back to village life, I just know we will.

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