The Magazine

Natural Wonder

Celebrating the art (and life) of Thomas Bewick.

May 12, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 33 • By SARA LODGE
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When we first meet Jane Eyre in Charlotte Brontë’s classic novel, she is hiding behind the curtains reading a forbidden book that transports her to the polar tundra: 

In these forlorn regions of unknowable dreary space, this reservoir of frost and snow, where firm fields of ice, the accumulation of centuries of winters, glazed in Alpine heights above heights, surround the pole, and concentre the multiplied rigours of extreme cold; even here .  .  . there appears to subsist an abundance of animals, in the air, and in the waters.

Jane is gripped. Her lonely, 10-year-old imagination flies to the extremities of the earth, where still lonelier creatures survive against the odds. She isn’t reading adventure fiction; she is reading Thomas Bewick’s A History of British Birds (1797). For the Brontës, as for many early-19th-century children, these exquisitely illustrated books of natural history were as inspiring as Moby-Dick and The Call of the Wild would be to later generations. Thomas Bewick (1753-1828) became famous for his exceptionally fine wood engravings depicting different species of bird and animal. But to contemporary readers, he was more than an engraver; he was a storyteller, a familiar guide who led the amateur naturalist into new territories that became theirs to explore.

In her fascinating new study, Diana Donald looks again at Bewick’s rich contribution to natural history and visual art and asks what his illustrated volumes meant: what views he was expressing through his work and what his books came to mean to later readers. She also endeavors to place Bewick’s work in the context of a spectrum of books that made different implicit arguments about the natural order of species, the position of animals in the moral universe, and their relationship to man.

When Bewick published his General History of Quadrupeds in 1790, he was entering a market that was divided between luxury plates, typically sold separately but collected by connoisseurs who valued them for their beauty and rarity, and cheap multivolume series that were used as reference guides and were often sparsely illustrated. There were also “bestiaries,” aimed at children, some of which still included fabulous animals such as unicorns. Bewick’s approach was winning because it was both accessible and precise in its depiction of animals and its description of their habits. He engraved on wood rather than copper: Woodcuts were cheap and durable, and were thus associated with popular publication. 

But Bewick’s wood engravings were of unrivaled quality. Rather than cutting designs into blocks of wood that had been sawed along the plank, exposing soft fibers that could be roughly cut with a knife, Bewick engraved designs on the hard, polished cross-section of close-fibered boxwood: a medium that, like metal, allowed tiny, delicate incisions. He evolved his own technique of moving between “white line” (highlights within areas of shadow) and “black line” (ridges of wood left standing to define form in lighted areas), producing images that still astonish the viewer with their lyrical grace and minute detail. 

Wherever possible, Bewick drew from living specimens—in the wild, traveling menageries, or private collections. The result is that his animals and birds have the inquisitive eye and questing gait of creatures caught for a moment before going on with their lives. Their fur and plumage is alive with texture. They have distinctive characters. As the editor of Blackwood’s Magazine commented in 1825, “Study Bewick, and you know a British bird as you know a man, by his physiognomy. .  .  . You can make him out even at a distance, as sailors say, by ‘the cut of his jib.’ ” As Donald demonstrates, this was not true of many contemporary natural histories, for example John Hill’s (1752), in which the “blue tit” resembles a monstrous cross between a wagtail and a quail.