Thomas Bewick

Thomas Bewick was born August 12, 1753, at Cherryburn, in the parish of Ovingham, and county of Northumberland. His father, John Bewick, had for many years a landsale colliery at Mickley-Bank, now in the possession of his son William. John Bewick, Thomas’s younger brother, and coadjutor with him in many of his works, was born in 1760 – unfortunately for the arts and for society, of which he was an ornament, died of a consumption, at the age of thirty-five.

Example of Bewick’s early work as an apprentice: History of Little Riding Hood, 1777
Example of Bewick’s early work as an apprentice: History of Little Riding Hood, 1777

The early propensity of Thomas to observe natural objects, and particularly the manners and habits of animals, and to endeavour to express them by drawing, in which, without tuition, he manifested great proficiency at an early age, determined his friends as to the choice of a profession for him. He was bound apprentice, at the age of fourteen, to Mr Ralph Beilby of Newcastle, a respectable copper-plate engraver, and very estimable man[1]. Mr Bewick might have had a master of greater eminence, but he could not have had one more anxious to encourage the rising talents of his pupil, to point out to him his peculiar line of excellence, and to enjoy without jealousy his merit and success, even when it appeared, in some respects, to throw himself into the shade. When Mr Charles Hutton, afterwards the eminent Professor Hutton of Woolwich, but then a schoolmaster in Newcastle, was preparing, in 1770, his great work on Mensuration, he applied to Mr Beilby to engrave on copper-plates the mathematical figures for the work. Mr Beilby judiciously advised that they should be cut on wood, in which case, each might accompany, on the same page, the proposition it was intended to illustrate. He employed his young apprentice to execute many of these; and the beauty and accuracy with which they were finished, led Mr Beilby to advise him strongly to devote his chief attention to the improvement of this long-lost art. Several mathematical works were supplied, about this time, with very beautiful diagrams; particularly Dr Enfield’s translation of Rossignol’s Elements of Geometry.

On the expiration of his apprenticeship, he visited the metropolis for a few months, and was, during this short period, employed by an engraver in the vicinity of Hatton-Garden. But London, with all its gaieties and temptations, had no attractions for Bewick: he panted for the enjoyment of his native air, and for indulgence in his accustomed rural habits. On his return to the North, he spent a short time in Scotland, and afterwards became his old master’s partner, while John, his brother, was taken as their joint-apprentice.

The Old Hound, in the version that won Bewick a prize in 1775
The Old Hound, in the version that won Bewick a prize in 1775

About this time, Mr Thomas Saint, the printer of the Newcastle Courant, projected an edition of Gay’s Fables, and the Bewicks were engaged to furnish the cuts. One of these, The Old Hound, obtained the premium of the Society of Arts, for the best specimen of wood-engraving, in 1775. An impression of this may be seen in the Memoir pre-fixed to Select Fables, printed for Charnley, Newcastle, in 1820; from which many notices in the present Memoir are taken. Mr Saint, in 1776, published also a work entitled, Select Fables, with an indifferent set of cuts, probably by some inferior artist; but in 1779 came out a new edition of Gay, and, in 1784, of the Select Fables, with an entire new set of cuts, by the Bewicks.

It has been already said, that Thomas Bewick, from his earliest youth, was a close observer and accurate delineator of the forms and habits of animals; and, during his apprenticeship, and indeed throughout his whole life, he neglected no opportunity of visiting and drawing such foreign animals as were exhibited in the different itinerant collections which occasionally visited Newcastle. This led to the project of the History of Quadrupeds; a Prospectus of which work, accompanied by specimens of several of the best cuts then engraved, was printed and circulated in 1787; but it was not till 1790 that the work appeared.

    1. ^ It is stated by the author of The Pursuit of Knowledge under Difficulties, forming a part of the Library of Entertaining Knowledge (we know not on what authority, but we think it probable,) that he was in the habit of exercising his genius by covering the walls and doors of his native village with sketches in chalk of his favourites of the lower creation with great accuracy and spirit; and that some of these performances chancing to attract Mr Beilby’s notice, as he was passing through Cherryburn, he was so much struck with the talent which they displayed, that he immediately sought out the young artist, and obtained his father’s permission to take him with him as his apprentice.
  • Image source:
    (1) Boyd, Julia. Bewick Gleanings. Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Andrew Reid, 1886.
  • (2) Bewick, Thomas; Bewick, John. Select Fables. Newcastle: 1820.