“Oh now that the genius of Bewick were mine-William Wordworth. Lyrical Ballads, Volume 2 (1800)
And the skill which He learn’d on the Banks of the Tyne...”
Thomas Bewick was born in Northumberland, England. In his early teens, he became apprenticed as an engraver to Raph Beilby in Newcastle. After having served out his seven year apprenticeship, Bewick later became a partner with Beilby. Although Bewick illustrated children books, he is best known for his works on natural history (A General History of Quadrupeds 1785 and A History of British Birds Vol. 1- 1797; Vol. 2 – 1804).
It was the fineness of the engravings that made Thomas Bewick so renown. He engraved his images on hardwood instead of metal. He used what is termed the “white-line” engraving technique – where the white part of the picture is cut away. Bewick also lowered certain parts of the engraving so that the resulting picture showed more shades than a typical engraving and gave the impression of distance and perspective.
Bewick’s most popular work was A History of British Birds. At first, he started to view specimens of birds in a museum, but decided they were too unnatural to be of any use. He then decided he would use either live subjects or those recently killed for his engravings. Along with the engravings of each individual bird, he placed small vignettes and tail-pieces in both volumes of his book.
Charlotte Bronte mentions A History of British Birds in her work Jane Eyre. In one part, Jane states “Each picture told a story; mysterious often to my undeveloped understanding and imperfect feelings, yet ever profoundly interesting...” This is what often intrigued his readers, these small, detailed little engravings, often of everyday country life or morality scenes. Many times they showed a black sense of humor. In another section of Jane Eyre, Jane muses on one such detail: “I cannot tell what sentiment haunted the quiet solitary churchyard, with its inscribed headstone; its gate, its two trees, its low horizon, girdled by a broken wall, and its newly-risen crescent, attesting the hour of eventide.” These engravings were often inserted as tail-pieces at the bottom of the page. Many of these tail-pieces and vignettes were subsequently used by others over the years. One publisher, William Darton, reused many of Bewick’s engravings in his children’s books 1787-1876...
See also J. Blackwell.