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Thomas Bewick’s Art Treasures Return to Newcastle

A small collection of original woodblocks by Thomas Bewick, the Newcastle artist, naturalist and master wood engraver, were purchased by the Society, on the 26 November 2013, with the aid of a generous private donation and a grant from the Bewick Society.

The seven blocks, were originally proudly held in the collections of the Bewick family. When Isabella Bewick, the last member of Bewick’s immediate family, died in 1883 the entire collection of over 1,300 wood blocks, the illustrations to all of his major works namely British Birds, Quadrupeds and the Fables of Aesop all neatly arranged in four wooden chests fitted with trays, was sent to auction in London by her executors. Fortunately they were brought back to Newcastle by Ward and Son, Printers (relatives of Bewick’s wife) who bought them for £2,350.

Sadly, Bewick’s legacy of work fell out of favour in the 1940s and when they were inherited by Dame Irene Ward, M.P. for Tynemouth, she sent them again to London for auction at Sotheby’s, in 1942.

Ben Abramson, an American bookseller in Chicago, made the winning bid on Lot 403 and the blocks left England bound for New York, dodging German U-boats, as they made their slow journey to Chicago. Abramson failed to find a home for the whole collection in an American museum or institution and it was sadly split up and sold to buyers all across the United States.

Our blocks, now housed in the Society’s archive, ended up in the collections of the late 20th century calligrapher, Paul Standard.  His relatives, based in New York, offered them back to the Bewick Society in August 2013 and the Natural History Society was in the fortunate position of being able to secure them. They flew back to England, this time making a much quicker journey and arrived in our library on the 26 November 2013.

The blocks, which are all fine examples of Bewick’s work, include the exquisite headpiece for the engraving of the Little Bittern from Water Birds. There are six vignettes or ‘tale-pieces’ as Bewick called them – a Tawny Owl, looks out sleepily from his leafy bower,  a boy waves his hat at an angry goose, the clever Crow drops stones into a pitcher to gain a sip of water, and a man and his pointer dogs look for sport, all to be found in British Birds. The earliest woodblock, a fox greedily watching some ducks, first appeared in Quadrupeds (1790) and a splendid Peacock sitting on a fence is illustrated in The Fables of Aesop.

There are other woodblocks in the North East, in the City Library and at Cherryburn, but it is very rare that the opportunity to repatriate any of the scattered American blocks occurs. They are a wonderful addition to the Society’s Bewick archive, which now illustrates the full range of his work from drawings, to wood blocks, to the finished engravings and publications.

Read more about the blocks:  Holmes, June. Bewick’s Art Treasures Return to Newcastle. Cherryburn Times. Vol. 6:7 pp.13-14.

The blocks will be on display during our Heritage Open Day event in September 2018 but if any of our members would like to view them before then please contact our Archivist, June Holmes, for an appointment.