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Thomas Bewick

(1753-1828) Acclaimed wood engraver, artist and naturalist who was a celebrity in his own time; he even has a bird named after him, 'Bewick's Swan'. We have an important archive of the North East's most famous and talented naturalist.

Born in August 1753 at Cherryburn, a small farm on the south bank of the river Tyne, in the parish of Ovingham, Northumberland. His parents John Bewick and Jane Wilson had married in 1752. John was the tenant of a small eight-acre farm and adjacent colliery. Thomas being the eldest of eight children was, as a boy, expected to help around the farm and the colliery. His love of the surrounding countryside often led him to truancy from his tasks and he delighted in roaming about fishing, looking at flowers and watching birds and animals. This proved to have a great influence on his work in later life.

He was schooled in the nearby village of Ovingham by the Reverend Christopher Gregson and at the age of fourteen apprenticed to Ralph Beilby, the owner of an engraving business in Newcastle.

During his seven-year apprenticeship, Bewick was instructed in all the skills necessary to excel in the engraving business, but Beilby was soon to recognise his obvious talent for wood engraving. He was set to work on a number of book illustrations, including children’s books such as Tommy Trip’s History of Beasts and Birds, Fables by the late Mr Gay and Select Fables for Thomas Saint, a Newcastle printer.

After the completion of his apprenticeship, Bewick decided to enjoy his liberty, which in his Memoir he describes as a time of great enjoyment, by setting out alone on foot on a five hundred mile tour of Scotland. On his return to Newcastle he immediately took a passage on a collier bound for London to try his luck in the great city. Bewick disliked London, although he could easily have set up business there, and he returned home to Newcastle as soon as he was able, resuming his association with Ralph Beilby in 1777 as his partner.

After the death of his parents in 1785 his thoughts fixed on marriage and he settled on a local lass, Isabella ‚ ‘Bell’‚ Elliot who brought him a life of uninterrupted happiness. They were married in St. John’s Church, Newcastle in 1786 and had four children Jane, Robert Elliot, Isabella and Elizabeth, who were themselves destined to remain unmarried.

The engraving business was flourishing and Beilby and Bewick set out on an ambitious project to produce A General History of Quadrupeds. Published in 1790, with the intention of encouraging the youth of the day into the study of natural history, it was exceptionally well received due, in the most part, to the freshness and accuracy with which many of the animals were portrayed.

With the success of Quadrupeds behind them they turned their attention to a companion work on birds. With this in mind Bewick travelled in July 1791 to Wycliffe Hall near Barnard Castle, the home of the late Marmaduke Tunstall. The partners had come into contact with Tunstall when he had commissioned the large engraving of ‚ ‘The Chillingham Bull’‚ published in 1789; Bewick’s most celebrated wood engraving. Tunstall had formed an extensive private museum collection, which included many stuffed birds, especially foreign species; and with the purpose of researching for the new book, Bewick was invited by William Constable, who had inherited the estate, to spend two months at Wycliffe in order to study the skins. Many of the specimens from Tunstall’s collection were later to find a home at the Natural History Society’s Museum in Newcastle.

After sketching a large number of the birds, Bewick wrote to Beilby commenting on the enormity of the task and his dissatisfaction with the badly stuffed specimens. They decided to concentrate their book on the British birds only and two volumes of the History of British Birds were published, Land Birds in 1797 and Water Birds in 1804. It is here we see Bewick at his best as a keen observer of wildlife, drawing in most part from his own experience of living birds or from fresh specimens sent to him by his many friends and admirers.

The partnership of Beilby and Bewick ended acrimoniously in January 1798 and Bewick, retaining the engraving business, went on to publish further revised editions of Quadrupeds and British Birds. He turned his attention in 1812 to a new venture, The Fables of Aesop, which he published in 1818. Fables and moral tales had formed a great part of his boyhood reading and the interest had continued into his adult life, inspiring many of his vignettes or ‚‘tale-pieces’‚ as he called them.

Thomas Bewick died in 1828 at the age of seventy-five, leaving the engraving business to his son Robert and a wealth of watercolour and pencil drawings, woodblocks and engravings assiduously collected, over many years, by his family.

Robert continued to publish two further editions of the Birds in 1832 and 1847 (the latter edited by John Hancock the ornithologist and taxidermist) and also Bewick’s last major work, an engraving on wood Waiting for Death, published in 1832.

Pressed by his daughter Jane to produce an account of his life, Bewick had completed a manuscript of his Memoir which he commenced in 1822, but it was destined to lie fallow for many years, eventually being published, in a much edited state, by Jane in 1862.

Thomas Bewick was a celebrity in his own lifetime, and the great fascination with his life and work continued unabated throughout the lives of his family and long after their deaths. When Isabella, the last surviving member of Bewick’s four children, died in 1883 the family possessions were dispersed. Through the executors of her will a large collection of original watercolour and pencil drawings by Thomas Bewick and his apprentices was presented to the Natural History Society of Northumberland, Durham and Newcastle upon Tyne. The bequest to the Society also included all the Bewick family portraits and a portfolio of original proofs including a copy of the famous and extremely rare first edition of the Chillingham Bull. Some of the Bewick family’s personal belongings went to the relatives of Bewick’s wife’s great nephew Robert Ward, and the rest were auctioned. Sadly, Bewick’s collection of meticulously engraved woodblocks for his three books were sent to auction in London and many years later ended up in Chicago only to be dispersed all over the United States where many of them remain to this day.

Read about the seven woodblocks which made their way back to Newcastle from New York in 2014.

Visit the Bewick Society Website for more information.