Celebrating the art (and life) of Thomas Bewick.
May 12, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 33 • By SARA LODGE
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.