Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Woodcuts of Thomas Bewick

Thomas Bewick (1753-1828) remains England's foremost wood engraver. By all accounts, he had an idyllic childhood, romping about outdoors in Northumberland instead of attending to his lessons. His aptitude for drawing was noticed early (how could it not — he drew all over the steps to church), and he was apprenticed at 14 to a silver engraver. The engraver let Bewick handle orders from printers, who required woodcut images.

In those days, images and frames for advertising tended to be rather crude, and they were usually cut from the face of a board. Bewick instead used the end grain of the wood. The end grain was a much harder surface, which allowed for fine detail and many more printing impressions. Some of Bewick's blocks have been printed as many as 900,000 times!

When Bewick's apprenticeship was finished, he sought work in London, but finding it too crowded and unfriendly, he moved back to Northumberland, where through his great talent, he had a very successful career.

He printed a number of books, including the General History of Quadrupeds, the History of British Birds, the Cries of London  (images of street criers),  Aesop's Fables, and the Poetry of Robert Burns.

His images of animals are not only correct, but portraits of individual personalities. Looking at the scope of Bewick's work, it's clear that he observed wildlife with a very keen eye. His settings and backdrops are equally elegant. Notice how grass overlaps the boundary of the sod above, and how Bewick brings life to the rat by having its tail overlap the sod as well.

Bewick's most popular work was the History of British Birds. Scores of birds were depicted with accuracy and in his inimitable style. The bark on the tree above, and its shadowing, are typical of Bewick's illustrations.

Bewick's fame spread (John James Audubon was just one who called on him), and as demand for his work grew work, Bewick taught and employed other wood engravers to assist him.

 Illustrations from Aesop's Fables

I want to point your attention to this ad for the druggist J. Garnett. It was probably a lesser job for Bewick, but look at the beauty and care with which it's done. Smaller, delicate marks achieve a sense of distance, and the illusion of a reflection on the water is very convincing.

I'll end with this handsome frontispiece by Thomas Bewick. It has all the earmarks of his genius — stylized and densely detailed foliage; an elegant allusion to simpler, genteel times; a beautiful animal captured in a natural moment; and perfect shadowing executed in a completely black and white line format.

Thomas Bewick's work was so popular that he revitalized the art form of wood engraving for six decades beyond his death. A host of engravers closely imitated him, including his talented employees, and therefore it's not always easy to know authorship. I've carefully selected these images from a book of Bewick's work, believing them by sheer virtuosity to be the "real deal."

P. S. This posting's header is a detail of this beautiful woodcut. Be sure to read my blogging friend Rosemary's comment below, which gives some interesting backgound on this image.


  1. Thanks for showcasing Bewick's unusual charm as an engraver. Bewick is a favorite from 'way back; my college had a Center for British Art that possessed a lot of Bewick material. As you note, his birds are particularly famous, although I also have a soft spot for the birds of Edward Lear, the painter and humorist.
    --Road to Parnassus

  2. Hello Mark - I am delighted that you have featured Thomas Bewick on your post.
    We lived in Northumberland for 5 years, and that is where I first became acquainted with his wood engravings.
    The National Trust now own his little cottage, Cherryburn, where it is possible to visit and see his printing equipment in his Press Room.
    The first print you illustrate of the Chillingham Bull is particularly interesting. Did you know that Chillingham cattle are said to be the only survivors of the wild herds which once roamed freely through the forests of Britain? There is a small herd of them still living freely in the parklands at Chillingham Castle which number nearly 100.

  3. Hello, Parnassus - I would love to visit the Center for British Art and study Bewick material first-hand. When I worked as a commercial artist, I sometimes drew with a pencil on a heavy paper that had a texture like alligator skin. I had great fun approximating Bewick's look with that texture.

  4. Thank you, Rosemary, for that additional information! I published only a detail of the Chillingham Bull because I wanted that wild and wooly face to pop off the screen. But your comments have inspired me to add the entire image, which is superb.

  5. Mark, what an interesting and inspiring post. I was not aware of Thomas Bewick but absolutely love his engravings. As I am sure you have figured out, I am not a very educated art lover. I am an emotional art lover with perhaps a good eye, at best! You inspire me to learn more, especially about artists of the past. These engravings appeal to me on a technical basis, but most of all on the basis of beauty and detail and personality! Thank you!

  6. Dear Ann - Thanks for your comment. My friends always kid me because they know every gathering will include a little "show-and-tell!" I've enjoyed looking at the artists that you showcase, and I believe that every really great art collector has responded to art on that emotional level.

  7. Thanks for the post on Bewick; I've been a fan of his ever since I spotted one of his squirrels. I think he's a perfect representation of the continuing British passion for handcraftsmanship in the early Industrial Revolution. I really enjoy your blog.

  8. Thanks for bringing Bewick to light. I love wood engravings, and these are spectacular. Hadn't heard of him until now.

  9. Thank you Donna, for visiting, and for the nice comment. The artists and illustrators that I highlight are all my favorites — some are well known and I think some should be better known! I'm happy to take on that job.

  10. Hi, Alan - There's a fine Dover book on Thomas Bewick and his school, and it's great as a reference tool. I think you can see from Bewick's foliage thaat there's some commonality with the panoramic wood block wallpapers of the time.

  11. I love these classic elegant engravings. The level of detail is just amazing!!

  12. Hi, Stacey - The level of detail is amazing. I would be very interested to know the dimensions of the originals.

  13. I think Bewick was influenced by the silver engravers, his work is so precise and mimics engraving as close as possible. I love how artists use all of their experiences to create their work.

  14. Hi, Theresa - I think you're right. As I look at the last image, of the Chillingham cattle, the detail reminds me a little of Durer.

  15. Mark, what beautiful engraving. I too am happy you've featured Bewick's work but for a different reason. I am totally unfamiliar with it and your post makes me want to learn more.

    I enjoyed reading Rosemary's background comments as well.

    Imagine visiting Bewick's cottage and seeing the press and tools used to create such exquisite work...

    It is remarkable that he gives each animal a life of its own - a personality. And I love the ad he did for the druggist. Here was an artist who did his beat work even for a small commission.

    The bull's face, in close-up, is not only remarkable but somehow, charming.

  16. Hi, Yvette - I'd also love to see Bewick's cottage and tools, and especially some of his actual end grains. And wouldn't it be grand to own an original Bewick? With so many printings, perhaps that's still a possibility.

    I know what you mean about the bull's face — one can almost hear him moo. Bewick has captured the white of the bull's eye, which always seems to express surprise, wariness and maybe even a little madness.

  17. Thanks for highlighting the work of Thomas Bewick. You can find more info and images on the website of the Bewick Society, http://www.bewicksociety.org/

  18. I am delighted to have had a visit from The Bewick Society, and I encourage readers who enjoyed this posting to visit the official site:


  19. This work is lovely because of the rural subject matter which is soothing and pleasant in these stressful, modern times. Amazing about the end cut of the wood being used, and the number of impressions that could be made. Rosemary's comment about cattle that were formerly wild in Britain was very interesting.

    I believe a few companies, especially British ones, have used advertising and logos that are somewhat similar in style to the work of Bewick. I'm thinking of firms like Crabtree and Evelyn.

  20. Hi, Terry -

    As a graphic designer, I've always enjoyed walking through stores and especially department stores for visual stimulation; it's one way of generating ideas, whether it be looking at a shirt pattern or a box label. And I've found Crabtree & Evelyn to be particularly rich in that regard.

    I agree with you that Bewick's work appeals to us as a relief in our stressful modern times, but of course for most people of the 18th century, that time was stressful and unmodern. So that leads me to believe that Thomas Bewick looked for the beauty in his life and projected the best that was around him, much the way Norman Rockwell painted his version of America by assiduously editing out what he did not want to celebrate.

  21. Dear Mark,
    I know it's nearly a year since you wrote this post, but I just HAD to tell you how much I admire Bewick!!!! I read a biography of him a few years back, "Nature's Engraver", and have come to hold him in the highest esteem-- what a brilliant and talented man. I've purchased a print by Bielby & Bewick, from 1791...and still keep an eye out on ebay for more examples. I commissioned a local wood engraver to design bookplates for my sons, and, though they were lovely, they only made me admire Bewick more... what a genius.
    Thanks again!

    1. Dear Erika - Lucky you to have a Bewick print! Thomas Bewick has always been a great inspiration to me, and I used to reference him for some of the ink drawings that I did commercially. It's a look that's uniquely his.