Issue Number: 92
A life etched
Jenny Uglow’s new biography of Thomas Bewick presents a talented printmaker who, like this book, was both poetic and polemical, says Stella Tillyard
The Northumbrian wood engraver Thomas Bewick lived a decidedly provincial and determinedly modest life. Born in 1753 in a cottage in the Tyne Valley, he died in Gateshead a few miles away in 1828. A jobbing wood engraver and father of four, he was a bluff, unfashionable, no-nonsense man. But he was also an artist of international renown, made famous by his General History of Quadrupeds, published in 1790, and two volumes on British Birds that came out in 1797 and 1804. In hundreds of tiny prints of birds and animals, and in his vignettes and end pieces, Bewick captured a vanishing rural way of life and told stories that were shot through with the typically conservative radicalism of his artisanal world. Bewick hated London and only went there twice, preferring to tramp the Northumbrian hills and chew over political issues in his local pub. Everything he saw and felt went into his work: his hatred of cruelty to animals, greedy landowners and enclosure, his belief that nature and freedom went together, his love of the ‘original’ British constitution and disgust at the way he thought it had become corrupted. Look at the cut that served as the endpiece for Quadrupeds. Little more than three inches wide, with the delicacy and precision that Bewick perfected, it shows a dog loping along behind two blind fiddlers, led by a young boy with cap held out for contributions. What the blind cannot see is obvious to us: they are walking alongside the high wall of a new estate that sits in front of rich woodland. The land is enclosed, gated and guarded, cutting countrymen off from what had once been land they had used: ‘Steel traps and Gins’, a sign says. But beneath the sign the wall is already cracking – eventually it will fall. Perhaps it is this double way of seeing that explains Bewick’s enduring popularity and appeal to both adults and children simultaneously.
Endpiece for 'General History of Quadrupeds', 1790, by Thomas Berwick Endpiece for 'General History of Quadrupeds', 1790, by Thomas Berwick Endpiece for 'General History of Quadrupeds', 1790, by Thomas Berwick
Jenny Uglow’s life, the first full-length biography to use the extensive holdings of Bewick material in Newcastle and the business records of the workshop Bewick ran with Ralph Beilby, beautifully mirrors the ambition of its subject, so that her book, too, can be read in more than one way. If on one level it is what she calls an old-fashioned, ‘cradle-to-grave’ telling of a neglected life, on another it is much more. Uglow’s previous work has shown her interest in the lives of groups, in provincial life and in those she calls, with obvious political intent, ‘ordinary’. This book brings all these interests together and the result is a heartfelt recreation, not just of Bewick’s own life, but of the world of eighteenth-century provincial artisans, whose political beliefs and associative culture were every bit as sophisticated and rich as those of the kinds of people who have dominated eighteenth-century biography for the last decade: aristocrats, courtesans, politicians and actors. The result is not only a witty, readable life, beautifully illustrated with Bewick’s cuts, but a kind of alternative history that is, quietly, both ambitious and polemical.
Nature’s Engraver: A Life of Thomas Bewick by Jenny Uglow (Faber and Faber, £20)
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