Thomas Bewick, 1753-1828, was not only a wood engraver, but a brilliant water-colourist, self-taught naturalist and wildlife illustrator.
He wrote his own Memoir during the last six years of his life, but it was not published until 1862.
After his death, his daughters Jane and Isabella guarded their father’s papers and artwork from public view. But in 1880 they loaned some of his drawings and woodcuts for an exhibition at the Fine Art Society in London. This was the signal for the steady flow of Bewick studies that has gone on ever since.
Morpeth scholar Robert Blakey first met Bewick in about 1818. He said: “It was chiefly at the Fox and Lamb that I met him, though I had enjoyed three or four private interviews with him at the residence of a mutual friend. I took notes of his conversation, and have ever since preserved them with a degree of fond recollection.”
He wrote up these notes and they were published in 1879 in his Memoirs, well before the flood of books about Bewick had begun.
“Thomas Bewick formed an important epoch in the history of wood engraving, and he affords one of many examples in the history of science and art how irregularly and capriciously the seeds of genius are scattered among the various classes and orders of mankind.
“I did not know Thomas Bewick until within the last ten years of his life. He was then an interesting-looking old man, of portly size, and of a good-humoured and social temperament.
“He frequented a sort of club room at the Fox and Lamb at the foot of Pilgrim Street, Newcastle, and many happy and pleasant hours he spent with a few select, intelligent and jocular friends, who congregated here, chiefly with a view to enjoy his company and conversation.
“He was fond of porter, and I have known him sit from seven o’clock in the evening till 11, sipping his favourite beverage to the tune of five or six pints. It did not seem to produce any muddling or stupefying effect upon him whatever. He was always clear, collected, humorous and pleasant. Custom, I have no doubt, had rendered this indulgence quite innoxuous (sic) both to his body and mind.
“Bewick was not what may be called a vain man of his great fame and acquirements, for pride he had none. Still, he loved to dwell with cheerful complacency upon his own exploits and subjects closely connected with them.
“He used to observe often, particularly to any new acquaintance, that if a letter simply directed to ‘Thomas Bewick, Engraver,’ were to be forwarded by post from any civilised part of the globe, it would be sure to find its way, in perfect safety, to Newcastle-upon-Tyne.
“This experiment was, perhaps, never tried; but I have no doubt that if it had it would have fully confirmed the artist’s conjecture.
“He could not be considered a learned man, but he possessed a more than usual share of common sense; and this generally conducted him to safe and judicious conclusions on most subjects in which he felt any interest. He was a keen observer of the world, yet his shrewdness was entirely devoid of cunning and ill-nature.
“Bewick often dwelt upon his trip to London, ‘I was,’ said he, ‘quite overpowered by the coldness and selfishness of everything I witnessed. In every direction there was a hurry-scurry; and all the softer and more amiable feelings of man’s nature seemed to me to be obliterated from the scene.
“‘I was nothing in the great mass of moving humanity... I never saw a single recognition of acquaintanceship or friendship in the streets; every single unit of humanity was moving in rapid succession, as if it had no connection with anything around it.
“‘How different from what I had all my life been accustomed to! Why, in Newcastle, I could not get from my own door to Mr Charnley’s shop in Bigg Market without having 20 enquiries made by friends about my health and comfort of my household.
“‘But in London life is cheap; the hearts of even good men get hardened and that mutual regard and sympathy, which are the real balsams of life, are seldom tasted. I was delighted beyond measure when I turned my back on the place’.
“I have often thought that Bewick had a prophetic anticipation of the almost universal use of wood engraving since his day; for I well remember that on one of his evening parties the conversation turned on his own profession, and he stoutly maintained, against an ingenious opponent, that not many years would pass over until the art would be almost indefinitely extended.
“His words still ring in my ears, ‘I feel quite certain that there is still room for great improvements in wood engraving; and when sufficient encouragement is given for its more extended use greater nicety and skill will be displayed. We are only children yet in reference to many things, and wood engraving among the rest’.”
Note: All pictures are from Julia Boyd, Bewick Gleanings, 1886, republished by Frank Graham in 1973, and all except the portrait almost certainly by Thomas Bewick.