Thomas Bewick

Night heron
Night heron
In 1797, Messrs Beilby and Bewick published the first volume of the History of British Birds, comprising the land-birds. This work contains an account of the various feathered tribes, either constantly residing in, or occasionally visiting, our islands. While Bewick was engraving the cuts (almost all faithfully delineated from nature), Mr Beilby was engaged in furnishing the written descriptions. Some unlucky misunderstandings having arisen about the appropriation of this part of the work, a separation of interests took place between the parties, and the compilation and completion of the second volume, Water-birds, devolved on Mr Bewick alone – subject, however, to the literary corrections of the Rev. Henry Cotes, Vicar of Bedlington. In the whole of this work, the drawings are minutely accurate, and express the natural delicacy of feather, down, and accompanying foliage, in a manner particularly happy. And the variety of vignettes and tailpieces, and the genius and humour displayed in the whole of them (illustrating, besides, in a manner never before attempted, the habits of the birds), stamps a value on the work superior to the former publication on Quadrupeds[1]. This also has passed through many editions, with and without the letterpress.

    1. ^ “Of Bewick’s powers, the most extraordinary is the perfect accuracy with which he seizes and transfers to paper the natural objects which it is his delight to draw. His landscapes are absolute facsimiles; his animals are whole-length portraits. Other books on natural history have fine engravings; but still, neither beast nor bird in them have any character; dogs and deer, lark and sparrow, have all airs and countenances marvellously insipid, and of a most flat similitude. You may buy dear books, but if you want to know what a bird or quadruped is, to Bewick you must go at last. It needs only to glance at the works of Bewick, to convince ourselves with what wonderful felicity the very countenance and air of his animals are marked and distinguished. There is the grave owl, the silly wavering lapwing, the pert jay, the impudent over-fed sparrow, the airy lark, the sleepy-headed gourmand duck, the restless titmouse, the insignificant wren, the clean harmless gull, the keen rapacious kite – every one has his character.

      “His vignettes are just as remarkable. Take his British Birds, and in the tailpieces to these volumes you shall find the most touching representations of Nature in all her forms, animate and inanimate. There are the poachers tracking a hare in the snow; and the urchins who have accomplished the creation of a snow-man; the disappointed beggar leaving the gate open for the pigs and poultry to march over the good dame’s linen, which she is laying out to dry; the thief who sees devils in every bush – a sketch that Hogarth himself might envy; the strayed infant standing at the horse’s heels, and pulling his tail, while the mother is in an agony flying over the style; the sportsman who has slipped into the torrent; the blind man and boy, unconscious of Keep on this side; and that best of burlesques on military pomp, the four urchins astride of gravestones for horses, the first blowing a glass trumpet, and the others bedizened in tatters, with rush-caps and wooden swords.

      “Nor must we pass over his seaside sketches, all inimitable. The cutter chasing the smuggler – is it not evident that they are going at the rate of at least ten knots an hour? The tired gulls sitting on the waves, every curled head of which seems big with mischief. What pruning of plumage, what stalkings, and flappings, and scratchings of the sand, are depicted in that collection of sea-birds on the shore! What desolation is there in that sketch of coast after a storm, with the solitary rock, the ebb-tide, the crab just venturing out, and the mast of the sunken vessel standing up through the treacherous waters! What truth and minute nature is in that tide coming in, each wave rolling higher than its predecessor, like a line of conquerors, and pouring in amidst the rocks with increased aggression! And, last and best, there are his fishing scenes. What angler’s heart but beats whenever the pool-fisher, deep in the water, his rod bending almost double with the rush of some tremendous trout or heavy salmon? Who does not recognize his boyish days in the fellow with the set rods, sheltering himself from the soaking rain behind an old tree? What fisher has not seen yon old codger, sitting by the river side, peering over his tackle, and putting on a brandling?

      “Bewick’s landscapes, too, are on the same principle with his animals: they are for the most part portraits, the result of the keenest and most accurate observation. You perceive every stone and bunch of grass has had actual existence: his moors are north-country moors, the progeny of Cheviot, Rimside, Simonside, or Carter. The tailpiece of the old man pointing out to his boy an ancient monumental stone, reminds one of the Millfield plain, or Flodden Field. Having only delineated that in which he himself has taken delight, we may deduce his character from his pictures: his heartfelt love of his native country, its scenery, its manners, its airs, its men and women; his propensity

      by himself to wander
      Adown some trotting burn’s meander,
      And no thinks lang:

      his intense observation of nature and human life; his satirical and somewhat coarse humour; his fondness for maxims and old saws; his vein of worldly prudence now and then cropping out, as the miners call it, into daylight; his passion for the seaside, and his delight in the angler’s solitary trade: All this, and more, the admirer of Bewick may deduce from his sketches.” – Blackwood’s Magazine, p. 2, 3.

  • Image source: Bewick, Thomas. History of British Birds, vol. 2. Newcastle: 1804.