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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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.