Thomas Bewick

The last project of Mr Bewick was, to improve at once the taste and morals of the lower classes, particularly in the country, by a series of blocks on a large scale, to supersede the wretched, sometimes immoral, daubs with which the walls of cottages are too frequently clothed. A cut of an Old Horse, intended to head an Address on Cruelty to that noble animal, was his last production: the proof of it was brought to him from the press only three days before he died.

It may be observed, that, in the works of the early masters, in the art of wood engraving, there was little more attempted than a bold outline. It remained for the burine of Bewick to produce a more complete and finished effect, by displaying a variety of tints, and producing a perspective, in a way that astonished even the copperplate engravers, by slightly lowering the surface of the block where the distance or lighter parts were to be shewn. This was first suggested by his early acquaintance Bulmer, who, during the period of their joint apprenticeship, invariably took off, at his master’s office, proof-impressions of Bewick’s blocks. He particularly printed for his friend the engraving of the Huntsman and Old Hound, which, as has been already observed, obtained for the young artist the premium from the Society of Arts.

Tailpiece with Devil threatening a man in a coal cart
Tailpiece with Devil threatening a man in a coal cart
Mr Bewick was in person robust, well formed and healthy. He was fond of early rising, walking, and indulging in all the rustic and athletic sports so prevalent in the north of England. Many portraits of him have been engraved and published; but the only full-length portrait of him was executed by Nicholson, and engraved by his pupil Ranson[1]. It was afterwards proposed by a select number of bis friends and admirers, to have a bust of him executed in marble, as a lasting memorial of the high regard they entertained for his genius and excellent character. The bust was executed by Baily with great fidelity and taste; and was presented, by the subscribers, to the Council and Members of the Literary and Philosophical Society of Newcastle, and now occupies a situation in the most prominent part of the spacious library room of that useful Institution.

Many anecdotes are current among his friends concerning the occasions of many of his vignettes. Among others, one is told of a person, who had for many years supplied him with coals, being convicted of defrauding him in measure, on which occasion he sent him a letter of rebuke for his ingratitude and dishonesty. At the bottom of the letter, he sketched with his pen the figure of a man in a coal cart, accompanied by a representation of the devil close by his side, who is stopping the vehicle immediately under a gallows, beneath which was written, The End and Punishment of All Dishonest Men. This well-timed satire so affected the nervous system of the poor delinquent, that he immediately confessed his guilt, and on his knees implored his pardon. This small sketch was afterwards adopted as a tail-piece, which may be seen in the first volume of the British Birds, p. 110[2]. (First Edition).

    1. ^ In 1823, James Ramsay made a small full-length watercolor study, from which F. Bacon took a well-known engraving.
    2. ^ In page 82 of the same volume is the representation of a cart-horse running away with some affrighted boys, who had got into the cart while the careless driver was drinking in a hedge-alehouse. It is observable, that the rapidity of the cart is finely expressed by the almost total disappearance of the spokes of the wheel; a circumstance, it is believed, never before noticed by an artist.
  • Image source: Bewick, Thomas. History of British Birds, vol. 1. Newcastle: 1797.