Thomas Bewick

Thomas Bewick, 1795

I wish I’d known more about Thomas Bewick when I talked to Joe Viscomi. I did mention his name, and Joe gently corrected me on the pronunciation— it’s pronounced “buick.” There’s a weird confluence going on. I had read The Pleasures of the Imagination: English Culture in the Eighteenth Century by John Brewer a year or two ago, and seemed to recall a reference or two. Then, his woodcut technique showed up in the survey of American book illustration. Now, revisiting Brewer’s book I find some really relevant stuff.

In most ways, Bewick is like the anti-Blake. But like Blake, he was a city dweller. Bewick was from Newcastle, perhaps the fourth largest city in England at that time. He was apprenticed to Ralph Beilby, a prosperous engraver— later becoming a full partner in the thriving commercial engraving firm. Bewick became incredibly famous as an engraver, and people flocked to collect his work after his first major work A General History of Quadrupeds. His engravings were primarily of animal forms, infused with the sort of personification of moral conscience popular in the eighteenth century.

A question central to most of his life’s work is identical to Blake’s concerns: the relationship of art to commerce— or as Blake would put it, “the prolific and the devourer.” In this, Bewick was closer to the eighteenth century sensibility, while Blake foreshadowed the nineteenth. As Brewer puts it, “the frequency with which they addressed ‘the consistency of LITERARY and PHILISOPHICAL with COMMERCIAL PURSUITS’ betrays both the novelty of their claim and their uncertainty of its success” (511). Bewick used animals as an allegory of “the benefits of association, the value of social intercourse in cultivating the self” and became a central figure arguing for “provincial enlightenment”:

Have we forgotten in our hurried and imperfect enumeration of wise worthies— have we forgotten the ‘genius who dwells on the Tyne’ the matchless Bewick? No. His books lie on our parlour, bed-room, dining room, drawing room, study table and are never out of place or time Happy old man! The delight of childhood, manhood, decaying age!— A moral in every tailpiece— a sermon in every vignette.

Growing from children’s books mostly, it seems as if book illustration came of age through Bewick. However, common to the concerns of the 1930s photograph/text combinations, no one really read his moralizing, they just looked at the pretty pictures. They raved about his woodcut images, and either ignored or denigrated the moralizing text. Bewick was the inspiration for Audubon, and his texts did fuel the sort of naturalistic moralizing perhaps most felt in Wordsworth, who adored him. He was a rationalist, and a fan of natural religion that bordered on deism who felt that art must moralize. Blake, had he mentioned him (he didn’t— I checked), would have despised him. Bewick was a shrewd, entrepreneurial rustic who lived in a highly developed city.

The more I look at the history of illustration, the more I admire Blake. He managed to stop the overpowering nature of images, by creating overpowering texts and images. No other early illustrator really even comes close.