July 16

“At the beginning of this undertaking I made up my mind to copy nothing from the work of others, but to stick to nature as closely as I could; and for this purpose, being invited by Mr. Constable, the then owner of Wycliffe, I visited the extensive museum there, collected by the late Marmaduke Tunstal, Esq., to make drawings of the birds. I set off from Newcastle on the 16th July, 1791, and remained at the above beautiful place nearly two months, drawing from stuffed specimens.”

So wrote Thomas Bewick, the great English wood engraver, who so revivedthat art in his time, at the moment of setting to work on the illustrations for the two volume work, History of British Birds, which with the earlier published work, The General History of Quadrupeds represent landmarks in the history of wood engravings. When Bewick returned to his shop to prepare the engravings from the drawings he had made at Wycliffe, he was disappointed with the results. He found, as did the American artist-naturalist John James Audubon—some thirty years later—that stuffed birds on museum shelves were dull specimens in comparison to those in the field or recently shot. Bewick thereupon depended for his engravings on birds sent to him from all over Britain. As a result his magnificent blocks are a great deal more authentic than they might otherwise have been.

Bewick was apprenticed to Ralph Beilby, a metal-engraver of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, when he was fourteen years of age. Beilby, while he was a fine artisan in ornamental silver, undertook a great deal of work which did not require much craft skill. However the wide variety of his output allowed Bewick to obtain experience that would not have been possible in an establishment with higher standards.

Upon occasion printers would come to Beilby to commission the cutting of wood blocks. As the engraver was not skilled in this work, young Bewick was entrusted with it. The boy became very proficient. It was at this time that he met William Bulmer, then an apprentice of one of Beilby’s printer customers. Bulmer later founded the Shakspeare Press and became the best English printer of his time, producing the books which made Bewick’s wood engravings world famous.

Since the skill of the printer was an important factor in the best reproduction of the wood engravings, Bewick was always careful to have his blocks printed by the most competent craftsmen. His method of work was to draw his picture upon the block and to outline with a fine steel point the details which were to appear the darkest. The lines which were to print lighter to give the effect of perspective he then gouged out in varying depths, whereupon the detailed drawing was completed and the actual engraving started. Straight gravers were utilized for the unlowered surface, and curved for the lower parts. Under the hands of Bewick the finished result was meticulously detailed and a true work of art. At the present time the original blocks fetch a fancy price whenever they become available.

Leave a Reply