Nature's Engraver A Life of Thomas Bewick

Jenny Uglow

Farrar, Straus and Giroux




480 Pages


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A Washington Post Top 100 Book of the Year

At the end of the eighteenth century, Britain, and much of the Western world, fell in love with nature. Thomas Bewick's History of British Birds marked the moment, the first "field guide" for ordinary people, illustrated with woodcuts of astonishing accuracy and beauty. But his work was far more than a mere guide, for in the vivid vignettes scattered through the book, Bewick captured the vanishing world of rural English life. In this superb biography, Jenny Uglow tells the story of the farmer's son from Tyneside who influenced book illustration for a century to come. It is a story of violent change, radical politics, lost ways of life, and the beauty of the wild—a journey to the beginning of our lasting obsession with the natural world.


Praise for Nature's Engraver

"The story of Bewick's life, as Uglow vividly recounts, is first the tale of a young boy who revealed in the natural world. But this is also a biography that traces a time of fierce and constant warfare, mass migration of laborers from the countryside into cities, and everyday suffering due to brutal weather and mysterious illness. And it was a time when Britain fell in love with nature. The organization of Uglow's book is clever, embedding one man's chronology into larger natural rhythms, keeping the pace brisk and ranging over a rich cultural and historical landscape . . . Nature's Engraver is a refine and engaging biography, as beautifully wrought, in its way, as Bewick's woodcuts. It simply requires its own leap of faith. Only as I was talking a walk through Central Park one morning—surrounded by people chattering on cellphones, plugged into iPods, moving with that increasingly familiar gait of creatures only vaguely aware of their surroundings—did I understand why a book about an obscure figure and outmoded form of art was so fascinating. Its quiet, cumulative power is in describing the value of a lifetime of paying attention, of seeing what is all around us—and of approaching the world with a heart full of love and wonder."—Dominique Browning, The New York Times Book Review

"Uglow's biography is as poignant, shapely and incisive as Bewick's woodcuts. Grounded in the countryside he came from, this marvellous book takes its structure from the River Tyne and explores the patterns of its subject's life organically, working outwards from within, tracing the inner play of force and feeling so that the outlines stand out crisply as each tiny detail falls into place."—Hilary Spurling, The Observer

"Biographies rarely afford a glimpse behind the office door, and it is the image of Bewick at work that is so valuable here . . . It is hard to imagine a better biographer for this subject than Uglow, with her background in publishing and her knowledge of the North of England and the eighteenth century. It is also hard to imagine a more beautifully and produced book: scores of Bewick's frameless vignettes float frame-free and captionless throughout, appearing as they would have done in his own time, tale pieces every one."—Frances Wilson, Times Literary Supplement

"It's a combination of precision allied to an uncluttered vision, and an exquisite sensibility, that makes Jenny Uglow the perfect biographer for this artist who spent his entire life in love with nature . . . Jenny Uglow is a publisher as well as a writer, who understands how important it is that a study of ‘nature's engraver' should please the eye as well as satisfy the mind."—Mark Bostridge, Independent on Sunday

"Bewick, Hogarth's heir in his passion for drawing from life, was the greatest engraver Britain had produced. Jenny Uglow's earlier study of Hogarth is the blueprint for its natural successor, a book that is as delightful to look at as to read . . . Uglow's gorgeous book does rich justice both to the man and his art."—Miranda Seymour, Sunday Times

"[A] beautifully written, designed and presented book . . . immeasurably enriched by Uglow's canny grasp of period detail . . . As in all her books, she makes us feel the life behind the facts."—Frances Spalding, Guardian

"Bewick was more than just an engraver. He was a fascinating human being whose life, told by the gifted biographer Jenny Uglow, in this beautifully illustrated little book, embodies the philosophical and political cross-currents of his times . . . Uglow already has a justifiable reputation as one of the country's best biographers; this fabulous book will only enhance it."—Paul Riddell, Scotsman

"A wonderful portrait of the man whose exquisite woodcuts of landscapes and creatures reflected the essence of British rural life. Uglow brings us deep into the Northumberland countryside along the Tyne, where Thomas Bewick (1753-1828) grew up. A truant with a gift for drawing and a penchant for close observation of nature, he apprenticed himself at 14 to a Newcastle engraver and began a lifetime of etching on wood. By day, Bewick, and later his apprentices, handled commercial orders for engraving on mugs, coffin plates, posters and bar bills. In his spare time, he worked painstakingly on lively borderless woodcuts for such celebrated books as The Quadrupeds and History of British Birds, which found an eager audience among both children and adults. Woodcuts from Bewick's workshop illustrated some 750 children's books, religious tracts and other volumes published between 1770 and 1830. His circus posters, with ballet riders on horseback turning somersaults or hanging from the saddle, also delighted his countrymen. Working with his own tools—James Audubon noted their unusual delicacy—Bewick transformed the hitherto humble medium of the woodblock into an art, producing accurate images of birds and animals in an era increasingly enamored of natural history but lacking color photography. Uglow's detailed account covers Bewick's family life and political involvements, but she really shines when evoking the engraver's bracing country walks, his affection for farmers and other locals and his passion for wildlife, all of which informed his work. We see him in his workshop working the wood, perfecting techniques that created a school of followers. An unabashed admirer, the author writes of Bewick's 'instinctive sympathy and astonished awe at the beauty of living things,' and we see it for ourselves in the book's many illustrations. Another triumph for England's most innovative biographer, and a marvelous treat for fans of Bewick's beguiling work."—Kirkus Reviews

"In this perceptive biography, Uglow, an editor at the British publisher Chatto & Windus, chronicles the life of the wood engraver acclaimed for exquisite little vignettes of the Northumbrian countryside and its people. Thomas Bewick (1753– 1828) remained most of his life in his beloved Northumberland, where he was much in demand for bookplates, trade cards, playbills, business cards, leaflets and broadsides decorated with charming images of farmers, fishermen, peddlers, barnyards, moors, trees and streams. A naturalist as well as an artist, he rose to national fame with illustrations for three books, A General History of Quadrupeds, A History of British Birds and an edition of Aesop's Fables. Despite his celebrity, Bewick was 'a plain, no-nonsense man' who cherished his family, loved fishing and tramping about the countryside and occasionally dabbled in politics. Uglow fleshes out what might have been a prosaic biography with a wealth of fascinating information about the world in which Bewick lived and worked—including descriptions of Northumberland and its people, and accounts of contemporaneous politics and religious thought. Her charming book, copiously illustrated with Bewick's wood engravings, includes extensive notes and a list of Bewick's workshop apprentices."—Publishers Weekly

Reviews from Goodreads



Read an Excerpt

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...

Read the full excerpt


  • Jenny Uglow

  • Jenny Uglow is an editor at Chatto & Windus and lives in Canterbury, England. Her previous books include A Little History of British Gardening (FSG, 2004); The Lunar Men (FSG, 2002), winner of the PEN International Prize for History; and Hogarth (FSG, 1997).

  • Jenny Uglow Robin Farquhar-Thomson