Thomas Bewick (1753-1828)

Woodcut by Bewick, The Woodcock

The engraver Thomas Bewick was born at Cherryburn on the Tyne, near Newcastle. At the age of 14 he was apprenticed to an engraver called Ralph Beilby, who worked on door plates and clock faces as well as artistic work. Bewick’s first wood engraved illustrations were produced in 1748, and on the completion of his apprenticeship, he devoted himself to this craft. In 1775 he won a 7 guinea prize from the Society of Arts for his woodcut The Huntsman and the Old Hound. He then travelled in the Lake District and lived in London, but the city did not attract him, and in 1777 he was back in Newcastle, where he went into partnership with his old master, Beilby. In 1779 he made the woodcuts for Gay’s Fables and in 1784 Select Fables. However it was in 1789 with The Chillingham Bull that his mature style first manifested itself, with increased delicacy, especially in the treatment of foliage. In 1790 came his General History of Quadrupeds, which was successful enough to require two reprints in subsequent years. His most important work, however, was his Birds, the first volume of which came out in 1797 and the second in 1804. Another important work was Aesop’s Fables (1818). Bewick died aged 75, leaving various pupils, including W. Temple and William Harvey.

Bewick achieved a delicate and naturalistic style reflecting his close study from nature. He also advanced over other workers in the field by avoiding cross-hatching and other devices to make the wood engraving simulate other techniques, rather taking advantage of the nature of his material as it was.

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