Bewick and his Tale-pieces

In April we went to see an exhibition of Thomas Bewick vignettes entitled ‘Tale-Pieces’ at the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham. The Ikon is Birmingham’s contemporary art space so it was rare for it be hosting an exhibition like this; it was also the first time we have visited the gallery, contemporary art not being something in which, for better or worse, I take an interest. The gallery is a wonderful conversion of a Victorian building, very stark and white internally. Each vignette – and they were tiny – therefore stood out well. I wrote to Ellen about the exhibition…

>>We went out and saw an exhibition of Thomas Bewick’s vignettes yesterday. Apparently this is the first such exhibition. There were hundreds of little woodcuts – the end-pieces and page-fillers from Quadrupeds and British Birds. The gallery supplied you with a much needed magnifying glass to examine them. Extraordinary talent – they ranged from the cruel and gaunt to the humorous; from scenes of everyday life realistically portrayed to the slightly fantastic. Lots of people making journeys. I am very interested in Bewick partly because of reading Brewer and his historical importance, and partly because my aunt has a big collection of early editions – there was some sort of family connection in the 19thc – in one of the books there is a letter from his daughter.<<

We were told that Jenny Uglow, author of Nature’s Engraver: A Life of Thomas Bewick  (2006), would be coming to give a talk on Bewick so we bought both tickets for the talk and the book itself. Uglow’s book is really a model for what a ‘popular’ biography should be – clear, well-researched, scholarly, committed to its’ subject, lively; I mean absolutely no disparagement by naming it ‘popular’,  merely that is aimed at the general public rather than the academic community – nor in turn is this to disparage books aimed at the academic community; there is room for both types of book and there are good and bad amongst both types (I am reading a bad popular biography of Charles James Fox at present). A popular biography can be scholarly – Uglow has clearly done considerable research and the book is supplies with both an excellent index and a comprehensive list of sources – but it will not be academic in the sense of paying attention to detailed theoretical analysis. In any event the book is highly recommended to anyone with an interest in either Bewick specifically or in British culture and society in the period from 1780-1820.

It is not my intention to offer any more than a brief summary of Bewick’s life. Born in 1753 the eldest child of John Bewick a Northumberland farmer, Thomas remained throughout his life deeply attracted to the landscape of his youth and especially that around his childhood home at Cherryburn..

Cherryburn - Bewick's family home


Although he moved to Newcastle to become an engraver and woodcutter and enjoyed social life there, he was always happiest in his beloved Northumberland countryside. He made just two visits to London and hated it on both occasions (‘I would rather be herding sheep upon Mickely back top, than remain in London although for doing so, I was to be made the Premier of England’ Bewick wrote). When he did venture outside Northumberland it was for long walks in Durham, Cumbria and up to Scotland. In Newcastle he gradually developed the new techniques of woodcutting – which demanded near miraculous manual skill and dexterity – which finally enabled him to produce in 1790 the first of his master-works A General History of Quadrupeds. After the publication of Quadrupeds his fame grew and it was followed by Land Birds and later Water Birds. In character Bewick was by and large a gentle man, though he could be hot-tempered on occasion. His domestic life was quiet – he married in 1786 – and happy, and family and friends were of enormous importance to him. This somewhat absurd reduction is just a canvas upon which I can expand on parts of the book which had particular interest for me – naturally these tended to the political and historical background – but the comments which follow are in no way representative of Uglow’s narrative.

Politically Bewick’s beliefs were founded on a hatred of the abuse of power, of oppression. The times he lived through saw a great deal of both. He was no radical in the sense that he always defended property rights and was against universal suffrage, but in terms of his age he was definitely of the Left. In Newcastle he met others of the same mind and loved to spend his time at radical clubs debating the issues of the day. Enclosure was something which he hated from an early age and represented everything which he saw as being wrong with the society in which he lived: Uglow writes ‘Like so many, he took Goldsmith’s lament in ‘The Deserted Village’ of 1770 as his anthem:

Sweet smiling village, loveliest of the lawn, 
Thy sports are fled, and all thy charms withdrawn; 
Amidst thy bowers the tyrant’s hand is seen, 
And Desolation saddens all thy green: 
One only master grasps the whole domain, 
And half a tillage stints thy smiling plain.’

(I especially note this because there was some debate on the ECW list a little while ago about how The Deserted Village should be read; I always saw it as a radical protest poem and here is clear evidence that so did contemporaries). In one of his vignettes Bewick went further and inscribes the following lines from The Deserted Village on a large rock…

Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey, 
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay. 
Princes and lords may flourish, or may fade; 
A breath can make them, as a breath has made: 
But a bold peasantry, their country’s pride, 
When once destroy’d, can never be supplied.

Like so many Bewick welcomed the outbreak of the French Revolution writing later…

‘the French people rose simultaneously, as one man, and with unconquerable energy & bravery, like a whirlwind, swept off the advocates & armies of despotism in heaps, or one after another, from the face of the earth’.

In relation to animals Bewick was strongly of the view that they were not soulless mechanisms but part of a living spectrum of creation which included humans; this however made him fearful of the possibility that the human/animal divide would collapse and men become brutes. These views fed his politics – he hated the way in which the poor, the vagrants, the masses could be called brutes, but he also hated cruelty to animals seeing it as an easy step from that to cruelty to humans; he illustrated this in one of his greatest vignettes entitled  An Itinerant Showman with  His Performing Animals….


 (in the background – often important in the vignettes – are gallows).

In religion Bewick was a Deist – ‘accepting that everything  was made by design and prepared to believe in a transcendent Creator and a life ever after, but not in the mysteries of the Holy Trinity’. He hated the Old Testament for its violence and absurdity.
As the violent reaction and repression of Pitt’s Government took hold in the 1790’s and many of his friends were persecuted and jailed, Bewick like many others contemplated emigrating to America. He saw the ‘system of espionage spread over the whole kingdom to keep the people down’. And he absolutely detested war as demonstrated in his vignette The Proper Use At Last of All Warlike Monuments  –  

The Proper Use of All Warlike Monuments

 In his Memoirs, written late in his life, there is the following magnificent passage on war…

“One would think that the gaining of Worlds, would not compensate the misery & horrid waste of human life, which are the certain attendants of War, and one would wonder, what kind of materials men are made of or what kind of minds & souls direct the actions of the Authors of it – were they to reflect, it may fairly be concluded, they could not bear their own thoughts & that they would after taking a cool survey of the wretchedness they have occasion’d, go immediately and hang themselves….

All wars, except defensive ones are detestable and if Governments admitted morality into their institutions and were governed by its precepts, all wars, would in all probability grow into disuse & cease – but hitherto that treasure of inestimable value I think has been discarded from their councils – And i cannot discover much difference between them & the lesser Banditti of old – for in the former as well as the latter they were guided by strong disposition to rob as soon as they thought themselves able successfully to do so & to shew that they thought ‘might was right’

Bewick never pretended to be anything other than he was. Fifteen year old Hannah Gurney daughter of a Quaker banker who visited him in 1801 found him disappointing…

‘He is a large, fat, dark man pitted with the small pox, very ordinary, & what does not serve to embellish his person, chewed tobacco. He was in his workshop which is no more than a dirty hole. He was very civil & shewed us a great number of his vignettes which entertained us very much’

Uglow comments that “Bewick was content to be ‘very ordinary'” ; I love the idea that work of such astonishing quality was being produced in a ‘dirty hole’! but note also his civility.

In terms of the cultural background of the time Bewick was very much of his day. He would have agreed with Constable who wrote in 1801 that ‘Nature is the fountain’s head, the source from whence all originality must spring’ ; Bewick himself wrote ‘ Had I been a painter, I would never have copied the works of the Old Masters or others, however highly they may be esteemed – I would have gone to nature for all my patterns, for she exhibits and endless variety – not possible to be surpassed & scarcely ever to be equalled’. In literature the vogue of the decade (1790’s) was for ‘peasant poets’ (Uglow notes that in 1800 the best selling poetry book was not The Lyrical Ballads which barely reached 1000 sales, but The Farmer’s Boy by Robert Bloomfield a Suffolk shoe-maker which sold 40,000). Bewick was compared to Burns and it was a comparison that stuck but many who used it did so ignorantly seeing Bewick as uneducated and rustic – they ignored ‘his long years in a town workshop, his collecting of fine books and print, and the dynamic complexity of provincial culture’ ; it was a form of elitist condescension. Wordsworth himself saw Bewick as a visual ally and paid his own tribute in The Two Thieves….

Oh now that the genius of Bewick were mine
And the skill which He learn’d on the Banks of the Tyne;
When the Muses might deal with me just as they chose
For I’d take my last leave both of verse and of prose.

What feats would I work with my magical hand!
Book-learning and books should be banish’d the land
And for hunger and thirst and such troublesome calls
Every ale-house should then have a feast on its walls.

In truth though as Uglow points out the literary figure to whom Bewick is really closest is John Clare. Bewick never ignored the realities of life and he showed people as ‘cruel, foolish and crude as well as hard-working and long-suffering’ ; his Victorian admirers and in particular Ruskin found his crudity disturbing. Clare too knew all too well of life’s cruelties and harshness as wonderfully illustrated in a poem Ellen has recently posted on ECW….

The Shepherd’s Tree

Huge elm, with rifted trunk all notched and scarred,
Like to a warrior’s destiny! I love
To stretch me often on thy shadowed sward,
And hear the laugh of summer leaves above;

Or on thy buttressed roots to sit, and lean
In careless attitude, and there reflect
On times, and deeds, and darings that have been
­Old castaways, now swallowed in neglect;

While thou art towering in thy strength of heart,
Stirring the soul to vain imaginings,
In which life’s sordid being hath no part.
The wind of that eternal ditty sings
Humming of future things, that bum the mind
To leave some fragment of itself behind.

Bewick like Clare was very aware of ‘life’s sordid being’ ; but unlike Clare he had commercial success, a happy and contented family life and a wide circle of good friends. Bewick had his own demons and fell into dark moods, but by and large they were kept at bay. If he had not had success and family and friends is it not possible that he like Clare would have ended in the mad-house?

Uglow’s lecture was a fine one but mainly went over – quite understandably – ground already covered in the book. But I will conclude with three points she made there re-inforcing what she has written…

  1. Bewick’s art and feeling for nature is always particular : particular landscapes, even particular trees, and the particular, individual people of that landscape – farmers, fishers, inn-keepers
  2. Bewick was always working to be read – the books are designed not for public space but for private reading
  3. There is a deep sense of melancholy in many vignettes – for all the sense of community many are of solitary people, especially lone travellers

It is with one such lone traveller that I will finish because this is a vignette which sums up so much of Bewick ; the solitary traveller sits with his dog while behind the peacock sits on the wall of the rich man’s estate : it is all here – the detailed observation, the  sense of social injustice,  the sheer  delight in animals and yes that unmistakable tinge of melancholy…..


2 thoughts on “Bewick and his Tale-pieces

  1. ellenandjim

    I enjoyed reading this, Nick. I thought your summary or jist of Bewick’s life caught the important things: like Fox at home, domestic quiet, real affection, lucky in friends too. You mention how Clare lacked this kind of support. Maybe I am wrong but from Bates’s book I had the impression Clare’s wife bullied, pressured, and was a presence in Clare’s life that helped destroy him. She put him away. ”

    Though not bitter in the way of Crabbe, Bewick reminds me of him in having real personal dignity that rises above stigmatized circumstances. I was very moved by Crabbe’s son’s description of his father’s daily life and that of another person who visited him and wrote up what he saw (the basis of another biography).

    The pictures came out well — I agree on the marvelous skill it takes to do the woodcuts; later in the century people made a trade of copying them for printers to make hundreds of books too. Animals. Since having our two cats I know how like little people they can be.

    It’s too that enclosure is target for radicals and critiques of the social order. Austen wants us to know how bad John Dashwood is when she shows us he is enclosing his lands and forcing tenants off. I don’t remember the conversation about “Deserted Village” but know it’s true that one way today’s more conservative scholars can erase leftism is to interpret poems as “just saying the usual commonplaces.”

    I loved Uglow’s book on Gaskell and find her reviews are usually very good too.

    Thanks for this and reprinting the poem out here.


  2. nick2209

    Many thanks Ellen – and yes I should have, but didn’t, think of Crabbe – you are absolutely right; Crabbe was a keen amateur naturalist as well. And Bewick would have been a marvellous illustrator for some of The Tales!

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