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.

Moreover, Bewick was unusual in representing creatures within a landscape that didn’t merely frame them, but suggested their customary habits and habitat—what Donald calls a “continuous ambience.” This is especially true of A History of British Birds, where Bewick delights in showing us a bittern against a leafy riverbank whose curved and mottled reeds echo and camouflage the curved and mottled plumage of the bird’s neck. He also depicts a rook against a ploughed autumn field with a scarecrow, over which a parliament of rooks in flight passes like a wisp of smoke. The intricate patterns of nature and of the land are in harmony. As Donald shows, these settings not only helped amateur naturalists to locate the species Bewick described, they also contained an argument implicit in all of Bewick’s work about the beautiful fitness of each species to its appointed place in the Divine creation. 

Bewick was an exponent of natural theology. He compared the various competing theories of scientific systemization and classification to “skeletons injudiciously put together.” Man was, in his view, unfitted to solve the complex puzzle of Nature’s mechanics, but should make it his business to study and admire its munificence. He took, in Quadrupeds, a very loose view of species and breed and included large numbers of domestic animals, such as the carthorse, the Cheviot ram, and the Newfoundland dog. By mid-century, therefore, his books were not at the cutting edge of zoological and ornithological taxonomy, as informed by the continental work of scientists such as Cuvier and Temminck. 

But for many readers, this was a great part of Bewick’s charm. His work did not “murder to dissect.” It encouraged naturalists to favor observation of live specimens in the field. The commentary was personal and included common, dialect names for birds. It was also proudly local: Many of the breeds of sheep and cow that Bewick depicted had been raised by farmers in the north of England, around Newcastle, where Bewick’s workshop remained. Likewise, the moors, hedges, riverbanks, and wild coasts of his illustrations reflected the rural Northumbrian scenery he had known as a boy. This was fast disappearing due to enclosure and industrial expansion, not least that of the mining industry from which Bewick’s family profited. So Bewick’s natural histories are not merely “spotter’s guides.” Like the poems of his contemporary John Clare, they often have an elegiac air, calling to mind the transience of man and the fragility of landscape. 

They also, Donald successfully argues, have political and social undertones that are easy to miss. One of the distinctive features of Bewick’s books is his use of “tail-pieces,” small, engraved vignettes that interspersed the species illustrations. Playful, but also often quite dark, these tail-pieces—which Bewick sometimes referred to as “tale-pieces”—were a particular source of enjoyment for imaginative readers, precisely because they carried no explanation: They were stills from a film of which the reader could invent the beginning and end. In one tail-piece, from the second volume of A History of British Birds (1804), a couple of military veterans—one of whom has lost a leg—are shaking hands on meeting. Bewick’s daughter explained that this was a witty allusion to Bewick himself, greeting the reader again, as an old friend, at the start of a new volume. But the engraving is also one of many that show the terrible wastage of war, including depictions of scarecrows hung with military uniforms and amputee beggars. 

Bewick disliked cruelty of all kinds, and some of his tail-pieces address violence in a very frank manner. In one, two small boys are hanging a dog from a tree; a gibbet in the distance hints that these young sociopaths will come to a similar end. In another tail-piece, two blind fiddlers pass a rich man’s estate, where a notice (which we can see but they cannot) warns of “steel traps and spring guns”—a violent hazard to which these innocents may fall victim. In a third, a man is depicted dead drunk by the roadside on the king’s birthday. This engraving is a quiet protest against the custom of politicians dishing out free drinks on this day, by way of a bribe for party loyalty. 

Like many freethinking tradesmen of his era, Bewick was interested in radical ideas about modes of governance. He attended a philosophical society and was friendly with Thomas Spence, an impoverished schoolteacher who argued that all men had a right to an equal share in land. Bewick couldn’t agree with Spence that it would be right to expropriate land, for property should be held sacred; but he did agree that the gentry, whirling about “in aristocratic pomposity,” had forgotten its duty to the poor.

Bewick refused to depict an idyllic countryside with happy peasants and chubby infants; he blamed land-owners for exploiting their tenantry and livestock and was explicitly critical of their lack of moral leadership. He read Thomas Paine, supported the Americans in the War of Independence, and even toyed with the idea of emigrating to America himself. It is interesting to consider how Bewick might have fared had he been published alongside John James Audubon. The two men are so different in style: Audubon’s work is glorious, vivid, expansive; Bewick delighting always in smallness, intimacy, and “low” scenes. If Audubon is the Gainsborough of ornithological art, Bewick is the Hogarth. 

Bewick’s influence in the 19th century was profound, and Donald devotes a chapter to reflecting on the inheritance he left to readers such as William Wordsworth, the Brontës, Charles Darwin, John Ruskin, and Charles Kingsley. Part of his legacy was practical. Alongside Gilbert White, whose Natural History of Selborne (1789) was a bestseller, Bewick inspired thousands of children and adults to become amateur naturalists. Visiting Europeans remarked on the British passion for ornithology; Bewick, who even at the height of his fame was a tradesman not above engraving a doorplate or a bill of sale, empowered ordinary British people to take up what had once been a gentleman’s hobby. 

Part of his legacy was moral. Bewick’s illustrations for various editions of Aesop’s Fables and other works depicted the similarity between animals and man so forcibly, and cruelty to animals with such disgust, that they formed an essential text in a changing social climate that refused to tolerate the abuse of horses, dogs, and wild animals such as bears and badgers for human sport. But, as Donald shows, Bewick’s influence was also imaginative—and far-reaching in ways that one would not expect. One probable reader of his work was Wilhelm Müller, a German poet whose imagery mirrors Bewick’s striking vignettes of lonely travelers and vagabonds passing by moonlit cemeteries. Müller’s poems formed the text for Schubert’s great song-cycle Die Winterreise: So Bewick, as a Romantic artist, may well have been important to the genesis of that work, as he was to Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads.

Bewick was recently reappraised and brought back into public consciousness by Jenny Uglow’s 2006 biography. Donald’s study is an excellent addition to this growing field. It is academically precise and includes appendices listing the species identified in A History of British Birds and the level of scientific accuracy with which Bewick depicted them. But her book is also accessible and interesting to the general reader. One of the great delights of this volume is the number and quality of the pictures Donald reproduces: The illustrations alone are worth the price of the volume. Kingsley and Ruskin were among many Victorian sages who insisted that you should “know your Bewick.” Like “knowing your Bible,” knowing Bewick was a mark of both sound education and sensitive humanity. This book enables one to know Bewick differently, to look more closely—as his engravings invite us to do—at the habits and habitat of a rara avis who possessed the common touch.

Sara Lodge, a senior lecturer in English at the University of St Andrews, is the author of Thomas Hood and Nineteenth-Century Poetry: Work, Play, and Politics