Review of Montague Weekly, Thomas Bewick.

["A Craftman’s Life." Review of Montague Weekly, Thomas Bewick. Queen's Quarterly 41. 3 (1954): 398-9.]


Unlike Dürer and Holbein, Thomas Bewick – the first great English master of the “white line” – engraved his own blocks, using the graver in the end-grain of the wood as a sentitive instrument of expressive improvisation.  The recent revival of interest in Bewick, coming on the bicentenary of his birth, has given his work such wide circulation that many recognize it without being able to put a name to it.  For Bewick is not an exquisite minor artist; his work was always popular, intended for the public at large, coming from a large and generous mind.  The two books upon which his fame chiefly rests – the General History of Quadrupeds (1790) and the History of British Birds (1797, 1804) – are peculiarly British, naturalistic, and forthright – the achievement of a strong peasant genius that one wishes to know more about.

Born at Cherryburn on the Tyne in 1753, Bewick lived and worked in and about Newcastle until his death in 1828.  There are no spectacular incidents.  The son of a small farmer and mine-owner, he spent an unruly but idyllic childhood in what was then one of the loveliest parts of England, absorbing the rural lore that was to inform the whole of his art.  Apprenticed to a Newcastle jeweller and die-cutter, he was industrious, ambitious, and versatile.  As a draftsman he was entirely self-taught; and after mastering the crafts of engraving silver, etching, punch-cutting, and die-sinking, he took up wood engraving because his master was ‘very defective’ in that work.  His apprentice work in illustrating Gay’s Fables was awarded a small but coveted prize by the Society for the Encouragement of the Arts, and there was no question where his destiny lay.  After a formidable nine-months’ walking tour in Scotland, he worked for a few months in London, but returned with relief to Newcastle to become partner to the man he had been apprenticed to.  Year after year he worked quietly, turning his hand to a diversity of bread-and-butter work, perfecting his chosen craft, and devoting long hours – when his other work was done – to the figures and tailpieces for the Quadrupeds and Birds, and revising them for the numerous editions that their success demanded.  Unspoiled by an international reputation, he could seldom be induced to leave his Tyneside home, and continued – even when his eyesight was failing – to translate into wood his delight in God’s creatures and his blunt views upon the ways of man.

Mr. Weekley has made an attractive and informative book about Bewick.  The best part of Bewick’s autobiography – the account of his childhood and youth printed from the manuscript – is a social document of absorbing interest.  But Mr. Weekley has also contrived to bring Bewick completely to life – earnest, self-denying, hot-tempered, original, cantankerous, suspicious, opinionated.  Simple in his tastes, fond of the Northumbrian dialect and pipe music, and himself an adept at whistling, Bewick practised his art with a craftsman’s matter-of-fact concentration, rendering with vivid accuracy what he most loved; his drawings of the home landscape, trees, birds, animals, and insects are transfigured by the pressure of his ineluctable honesty.  His work is earthy, unpretentious, personal, seldom lyrical except in its exactitude, often charged with robust humour.  Where the autobiography becomes tedious with sententious moralising, the vignettes are always redeemed by the strength of his naive humour.  But he also shows at times an almost Jacobean taste for the macabre: there are some pictures of tortured animals, human misadventures, misshapen bodies and grotesque features, a body swinging in a gibbet looking like a parcel of butcher’s meat, a soldier’s coat and tricorn hung on a cross to frighten birds away.  And at times his humour has an unabashed coarseness that belongs perhaps to his time but is disconcerting even in these unsqueamish days.  About this, however, there is nothing gratuitous – any more than Goya’s Desastres display an intolerably morbid vein.  One is convinced by the fierce honesty of the drawing, by the indignation, pity, or quaint moralism, that Bewick has recorded what he saw, simply and truly, with a strength of feeling that time has not blunted.

This urbane and quietly authoritative book triumphantly evokes a little-known facet of the England of George III; it also brings us into the presence of a vigorous craftsman who was fellow-spirit to the illustrator of the Luttrell Psalter.  For those interested in wood engraving, there is an admirable short history of that art, as well as much information about Bewick’s technique.  The book is a beautiful piece of period design, set in the Bell types and printed on Basingwerk Parchment.  Twenty-nine of Bewick’s engravings are printed.  A block by Reynolds Stone and Joan Hassall’s fine portrait head of Bewick on the titlepage are vigorous tributes to Bewick’s art and spirit.