Thomas Bewick

Tailpiece from A General History of Quadrupeds
Tailpiece from A General History of Quadrupeds
But the great and, to the public in general, unexpected, charm of the History of Quadrupeds, was the number and variety of the vignettes and tailpieces, with which the whole volume is embellished. Many of these are connected with the manners and habits of the animals near which they are placed; others are, in some other way, connected with them, as being intended to convey to those who avail themselves of their labours, some salutary moral lesson, as to their humane treatment; or to expose, by perhaps the most cutting possible satire, the cruelty of those who ill-treat them. But a great proportion of them express, in a way of dry humour peculiar to himself, the artist’s particular notions of men and things, the passing events of the day, etc. etc.; and exhibit often such ludicrous, and, in a few instances, such serious and even awful, combinations of ideas, as could not perhaps have been developed so forcibly in any other way.

From the moment of the publication of this volume, the fame of Thomas Bewick was established on a foundation not to be shaken. It has passed through seven large editions, with continually growing improvements.

Decorative vignette for Somerville’s Chase
Decorative vignette for Somerville’s Chase
It was observed before, that Mr Bewick’s younger brother, John, was apprenticed to Mr Beilby and himself. He naturally followed the line of engraving so successfully struck out by his brother. At the close of his apprenticeship, he removed to London, where he soon became very eminent as a wood-engraver; indeed, in some respects, he might be said to excel the elder Bewick. This naturally induced Mr William Bulmer, the spirited proprietor of the Shakspeare Press, himself a Newcastle man, to conceive the desire of giving to the world a complete specimen of the improved arts of type and block-printing; and for this purpose he engaged the Messrs Bewicks, two of his earliest acquaintances, to engrave a set of cuts to embellish the poems of Goldsmith, The Traveller and Deserted Village, and Parnell’s Hermit. These appeared in 1795, in a royal quarto volume, and attracted a great share of public attention, from the beauty of the printing and the novelty of the embellishments, which were executed with the greatest care and skill, after designs made from the most interesting passages of the poems, and were universally allowed to exceed every thing of the kind that had been produced before. Indeed, it was conceived almost impossible that such delicate effects could be obtained from blocks of wood; and it is said that his late Majesty (George III.) entertained so great a doubt upon the subject, that he ordered his bookseller, Mr G. Nicol, to procure the blocks from Mr Bulmer, that he might convince himself of the fact.

The success of this volume induced Mr Bulmer to print, in the same way, Somerville’s Chase. The subjects which ornament this work being entirely composed of landscape scenery and animals, were peculiarly adapted to display the beauties of wood engraving. Unfortunately for the arts, it was the last work of the younger Bewick, who died at the close of 1795, of a pulmonary complaint, probably contracted by too great application. He is justly described in the monumental inscription in Ovingham churchyard, as only excelled as to his ingenuity as an artist by his conduct as a man. Previously, however, to his death, he had drawn the whole of the designs for the Chase on the blocks, except one; and the whole were beautifully engraved by his brother Thomas.

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