Nature's Engraver

A Life of Thomas Bewick

Jenny Uglow

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Prologue: A Plain Man’s Art
 
Printing from woodblocks is the oldest way of all. Before Gutenberg invented moveable type around 1450, books and broadsheets were produced by writing the text on wood in reverse, as in a mirror, and then cutting painstakingly round the letters, dabbing the block with ink and pressing paper on top. With the new metal type, printers still used the blocks for illustrations and a single block could be used over and over again, on different pages, in different books. The early cutters worked on the ‘side-grain’ of the wood, a plank cut along the trunk, often of a fruitwood such as pear or cherry, using carpenters’ tools – knives, chisels and gouges. When designed by masters like Dürer or Holbein these woodcuts could attain an astounding delicacy, but increasingly book publishers preferred to use copper engravings which gave a finer effect, and the crude woodcuts were banished to broadsides and chapbooks. Slowly, however, craftsmen tried using the dense end-grain of wood, sliced across the trunk or branch rather than along it like a plank. Boxwood proved the best, because box grows so slowly that the growth-lines are very close and on its hard surface the engravers could use the fine tools employed on silver or copper.
 
Bewick worked on boxwood, sent up in logs by sea from London. Hundreds of his woodblocks still survive, their scenes as sharp as the day he cut them. When I began writing, I went to see Iain Bain, a great Bewick expert. Outside his book-room rain clouds gathered and drops hung from the washing line; inside, the air smelled of leather bindings, ink and linseed oil. From a drawer Iain took a blackened wood block, its fret of thin lines shining in the light and its bark still rough around the edges, and fixed it in the bed of an old hand-press, ready to be inked. On the windowsill were pots of ink so thick that the roller made a slick, slick sound as he dabbed it on the block. The methods and materials were those of Bewick’s time: vellum skins for the press tympans – the frame that holds down the sheet for printing – fine woollen blankets to pad them and carefully damped paper. After we ran the bed of the press under the heavy plate, I pulled the lever firmly, to lower the plate with a slight ‘dwell’ on blankets, paper and block. Then we ran the press back, raised the covers and gently peeled off the paper, holding it up like washerwomen about to peg it on the line. And there it was.
 
Before me was a tiny scene, not a lyrical country lane but a man pissing against a wall – perhaps a fragment of Hadrian’s Wall, not far across the Tyne from where Bewick grew up. But was the print good enough? We took another impression, and there was the man again, still casting his shadow on the stones – and there he will be time after time, whenever the block is printed, but every time slightly different. Iain pored over the print to discover what adjustment of pressure, weight of ink or dampness of paper might be needed for a better result. And each impression made me hold my breath. I wanted the perfect print, showing every minute detail, all within the compass of two inches: the variations in his shadow and the arc of his pee, the socks rolling down below broad calves, the widely planted feet and the curve of his back, with the wrinkle in his coat between the shoulders; the tilt of his head and hat as he looks down, the roll of possessions flung down behind him. The wind is from the west, the trees lean and the grasses flow with the gusts towards the stream. But who is this man, and where is he walking? His stick hangs from a branch, and beyond him a wattle fence leads by the edge of the wood, past tufts of waving grass towards a just-glimpsed horizon.
 
This woodcut, typically, has no border. Bewick left his vignettes open, as if leaving us free to make our own reading and go on our way. But while his scenes free us they also hold and absorb us. Images like the man by the wall were merely tailpieces – or tale-pieces as he punningly called them – cut by candlelight after a day’s work and used to fill empty spaces at the end of a page. They look unassuming but command attention. They ask us to look deep, as children stare at illustrations when they first start to read, drawn into the pictured world. No wonder that Bewick began his career by illustrating books for children. There are hundreds of such scenes: boys flying kites, sailing boats on puddles, tumbling off carts; women chasing geese; men mending nets; old soldiers in unheroic rags; fishermen tangling their line in the trees. Together these scenes make a world, and this book describes the life of the man who created it – an impression, at least, off a Bewick block.
 
*
 
Only the wealthy could afford the grand natural history books with their lavish copper engravings, but Bewick’s woodcuts were far cheaper and this made his books far more widely available. We are now used to good printed images, colour photographs and astounding natural history films, but if we imagine a time when there were hardly any accurate images of animals and birds, we can begin to feel the amazed thrill of recognition at Bewick’s affectionate woodcuts of familiar animals like the field mouse or sheepdog, or the birds of the fields and the woods. Wood engravings were the plain man’s art, dismissed by the critic Horace Walpole in a cursory footnote in 1782 as ‘slovenly stamps’, but Bewick transformed them into images of haunting depth and subtlety. He was a powerful and passionate man, and his woodcuts carry the intensity of his feelings about the landscape and its creatures and his wry affection for the Northumbria he loved. In this book, nearly all the vignettes are the same size as he printed them: where this is not so the illustration list explains that they are reduced. It is tempting to enlarge them, as some lines are so fine that they could have been drawn with a needle. But their miniature intensity is, paradoxically, part of their greatness, and this way, too, they appear as their first readers saw them, the tailpieces floating without captions in the text.
 
In early May 1825, near Helpston in Northamptonshire, the poet John Clare saw a small brown bird that he could not identify. Did anyone, he asked his friend Joseph Henderson, have a copy of Bewick’s Birds? All lovers of birds in these years looked to Bewick. He spoke directly to men like Clare, a former farm worker and lime burner who knew every inch of the fields around his home, and to Henderson, head gardener at the nearby hall. Bewick was in his sixties by then, but he came from the same world as them, growing up on a smallholding in the Tyne valley and spending his adult days in a busy jobbing workshop in Newcastle: he would rather be herding sheep upon Mickley fell, he told a friend in middle age, than live in London and be Premier of England. Nothing hurt him more than the enclosure acts that drove the cottagers from the common.
 
He was a plain, no-nonsense man, who worked in a brown silk cap to hide a bald patch, wore worsted stockings, spoilt his children and went to the pub in the evening. Bluff and direct, warm to his friends and often generous to the point of foolishness, he was a shrewd businessman, brisk with apprentices, cussed in quarrels, stubborn in holding a grudge. But he also possessed an extraordinary talent and his skill has never been surpassed. He was knowing, too, about the mystery of art, the strange process of transferring a scene into a two-dimensional web of lines. One small vignette shows a cottage almost obscured by a fingerprint.
 
This is Bewick’s mark, drawing attention to the maker. But it is also a clever way of reminding us just how tiny this work of art is: though full of detail it can be covered by a finger. The story is hidden – all we can see is that someone is riding into the shadow, towards the cottage. And where is the viewer standing? Perhaps, as one critic has suggested, we are looking through a window, the glass smudged by a passing hand? The image is simple yet playfully ambiguous.
 
Bewick’s own story – sometimes funny, sometimes tragic – seems to demand a simple telling, cradle-to-grave, old-fashioned style. Yet the flow of his life, like all our lives, was shaped by the broad currents of the time. Different stories run together and intermingle. One is the tale of the workshop and the apprentices. Another is that of the book trade, of how children learned to read through images, how printers and booksellers worked and how the revival of wood engraving fostered the great illustrations of Punch and the novels of Dickens. A third describes the fierce political struggles during a time of almost constant war and change. Another strand is the story of Britain’s ‘Natural History Revolution’, as John Rayner put it, ‘parallel with, but less noticed than, the Industrial Revolution’. In Bewick’s day, the fieldwork of amateur naturalists was just beginning to lay the foundations for modern ecology. As he worked on his books, landowners and vicars, farmers and sea captains sent him birds, both alive and dead, piling on his workbench. He was a fine naturalist himself, and his work combined keen, detailed observation with a new approach, showing animals and birds in their natural settings, as part of the whole great interrelated web of nature. ‘Nature’ and God fused together in Bewick’s vision, as a rolling force that infused every aspect of life, from the habits of an ant to the vastness of the universe, ‘this sublime, this amazing, this mighty work of Suns & Worlds innumerable’. He felt its darkness as well as its beauty and his work touched the dawning Romantic age: Wordsworth was among the first to sing his praises and Charlotte Brontë placed his prints of icy seas in the hands of her young heroine, Jane Eyre.
 
The nation’s love affair with nature was a reaction to the way that the country itself was changing. In Bewick’s childhood in the 1760s the people of his village sang ballads and told ghost stories in the evening and Highlanders walked their cattle south to the fairs of the Tyne valley. Yet towards the end of his life, in 1825 – the year that Clare asked for Bewick’s History of British Birds – the Stockton and Darlington railway line opened, cheered by crowds of thousands. While he recorded the birds and animals he also captured a way of life that was fast vanishing, and as people flooded to the towns in search of work, so his country scenes spoke to the homesick. His images of a reed warbler by a stream or a solitary traveller holding his coat against the gale were at once signals of freedom and tokens of loss.
 
But town and country were not, as we are sometimes told, direct opposites: Newcastle was full of orchards and freemen grazed their cattle on the Town Moor, while industries like mining were part of the rural scene. The two worlds overlapped: a country boy like Bewick could become a man of the new polite age, collecting prints, going to concerts, attending lectures, signing petitions. With the artisans and radicals of Newcastle, Bewick raged against war, injustice and repression. Yet the politics of ordinary people, which we label ‘radical’, was often conservative, looking back to ancient rights and fighting to preserve old festivals and ballads, stories and dialect. Bewick dearly loved the music of the streets and the soft Northumberland pipes, and his woodcuts are the visual equivalent of ballads and popular proverbs.
 
So powerful are these little images that we see them everywhere, probably without knowing it – designers are drawn to use them on posters and jam labels, books and birthday cards. They are woven into our imagined version of a rural past, yet because of their sharpness and flair, their affectionate accuracy and originality, they defy false sentiment. Bewick knew that rural life could be cruel, that breaking stones on the road or finding sheep on the fells in winter was soul-destroying work, that desperate men could hang themselves from trees by sweet-flowing burns. He was tough and so was his art. His greatness, as the artist John Piper said, lay in the fact that he ‘registered what he saw with precision . . . he had that rarest of qualities – normal, unhampered, unclouded vision’.
 
Excerpted from Nature’s Engraver: A Life of Thomas Bewick by Jenny Uglow. Copyright © 2006 by Jenny Uglow. Published in May 2007 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.