Major PublicationsA History of Quadrupeds, A History of British Birds,
The Chillingham Bull, Waiting for Death, The Fables of Aesop.
This page shows examples of the figures from the major printed works that made Bewick's reputation. The two large prints from the beginning and end of his career are shown, The Chillingham Bull and Waiting for Death, and a selection of figures from A History of Quadrupeds, A History of British Birds (Volume 1 on Land Birds, Volume 2 on Water Birds), and The Fables of Aesop are included here. Most of the figures are by Thomas Bewick’s own hand, observation and imagination. Except for Aesop, these were mainly executed in the evenings after a day’s work in the shop.
(NB click on the image for a full screen version)
This single sheet print (7 1/4 x 9 3/4 inches) is the best known of all Bewick’s prints. It was commissioned by Marmaduke Tunstall, of Wycliffe in North Yorkshire. The original block still exists in the Pease Collection at Newcastle upon Tyne Central Library, though it is split and unusable.
[From Thomas Bewick My Life, edited by Iain Bain, p. 128 (spelling and punctuation as given in the original manuscript)]
... and on Easter Sunday 1789, I set off on foot to Chillingham [about 45 miles north of Newcastle] accompanied by my acquaintance William Preston, the printer, on this business. [...] We took up our abode with my old kind friend John Bailey and spent a cheerfull evening with him after our fatigues, and next day he accompanied us to the park for the purpose of seeing the wild cattle. This however, did not answer my purpose, for I could make no drawing of the bull, while he, along with the rest of the herd were wheeling about and then fronting us, in the manner as described in the History of Quadrupeds [pp.25-28]. I was therefore obliged to endeavour to see one which had been conquered by his rival and driven to seek shelter alone in the quarry holes and in the woods - and in order to get a good look at one of this description, I was under the necessity of creeping on my hands and knees, to leward and out of his sight - and I thus got my sketch or memorandum, from which I made my drawing on the wood. I was sorry my figure was made from one before he got furnished out with his curled or shaggy neck and mane.
The Chillingham Bull (800 pixels)
This single sheet print (8 3/4 x 11 1/2 inches) was the last piece Bewick worked on before he died. It was part of his experimentation in larger sized prints and it was not finished when Bewick died. It was published by his son Robert Elliott Bewick in 1832. The subject matter was identical to a much earlier vignette-sized print based on one of his earliest known drawings
[From the descriptive text written by Bewick to accompany the print Waiting for Death. The full text is in Robert Robinson, Thomas Bewick: His Life and Times, p. 163-4.]
In the morning of his days he was handsome - sleek as a raven, sprightly and spirited, and was then much caressed and happy. [...] It was once his hard lot to fall into the hands of Skinflint, a horse-keeper - an authorised wholesale and retail dealer in cruelty – who employed him alternately, but closely, as a hack, both in the chaise and for the saddle; for when the traces and trappings used in the former had peeled the skin from off his breast, shoulders, and sides, he was then, as his back was whole, thought fit for the latter [...] He was always, late and early, made ready for action - he was never allowed to rest.[...] It is amazing to think upon the vicissitudes of his life. [...] But his days and nights of misery are now drawing to an end; so that, after having faithfully dedicated the whole of his powers and his time to the service of unfeeling man, he is at last turned out, unsheltered and unprotected, to starve of hunger and of cold.
Waiting for Death (800 pixels)
[From Thomas Bewick My Life, edited by Iain Bain, p. 124–5 (spelling and punctuation as given in the original manuscript)]
Having from the time that I was a school boy, been displeased with most of the cuts in children’s books, and particularly with those of the ‘Three hundred Animals’ the figures of which even at that time I thought I could depicture much better than those in that book [...] I at last came to the determination of commencing the attempt.[...] In this, my only reward besides, was the great pleasure I felt in imitating nature.[...] Such animals as I knew, I drew from memory upon the wood; others which I did not know, were copied from Dr Smellie’s abridgement of Buffon and from other naturalists, and also from the animals which were from time to time exhibited in shows. I made sketches, first from memory, and then corrected and finished the drawings upon the wood, from a second examination of the different subjects. I begun this business of cutting the blocks, with the figure of the Dromidary on the 15 of November 1785 (the day on which my father died). I then proceeded in copying such figures (as above named) as I did not hope to see alive.[...] The greater part of these wood cuts were drawn and engraved at nights, after the day’s work of the shop was over.
Bewick’s first major independent publication was printed and published in 1790 in Newcastle upon Tyne. The single volume had been nine years in the preparation. It contains 199 figures illustrating brief descriptions of the animals, their habits and habitats. Most of the engraving was done in the evenings after a day's work in the workshop. Some of the descriptions are short, say half a page, and others quite lengthy - the Elephant has 11 pages of text. There is room for argument about how much of the text was written by Bewick and how much by Ralph Beilby. The title page does not give details on the writing, mentioning only ‘the figures engraved on wood by T. Bewick.’ Although some of the original drawings are still extant, they are mainly of the figures without the backgrounds, which were added directly to the woodblock in the process of engraving. In addition to many purely ornamental vignettes designed as simple space fillers (and often repeated), there are also 39 illustrative vignettes used mainly as tailpieces, the first such appearing on p. 63, an image of a pack horse. Several of these feature human figures involved in activity almost amounting to a story. Bewick referred to these as his 'tale-pieces.' For some reproductions of these vignettes in a separate section, click here. Below is a small selection of the figures; in each case you can click on the link to get a full screen version of the image.
The Giraffe, or Cameleopard (page 91)
It is not likely that Bewick had ever seen a real giraffe. The curvature of its neck in this image suggests a flexibility which is not quite possible, and the ‘large spots of yellow over the whole body’ are actually far too small – too much like leopard’s spots – to be recognisable as typically giraffe to the modern eye, which has access to colour film and video representations. But the figure is only one element of the engraving. What was unusual to Bewick’s contemporaries, who had no better representation of a giraffe to compare it with, is the added detail of the background: the trees, the two small giraffes browsing in the copse, the two small human figures on the left. This imagined back–ground is the Bewick trademark. The engraving is an example of how Bewick, the artist above all of direct observation, could deal imaginatively with a subject he had no direct experience of.
The Stag, or Red Deer (page 105)
The stag is based on direct observation of and familiarity with the animal in its natural environment. The double background, of ruined oak tree with new growth sprouting just behind the figure, and the running stag and wood in the far background, would have been added directly to the wood during the engraving. It is interesting and inventive in two ways, compositionally and technically. The sprouting tree balances the wonderful antlers of the stag; the ruined oak coming back to life is a recognisably romantic trope. Technically it is noticeable that there are different levels of ink density, achieved by Bewick’s innovative layering of his cut on different levels, so that differing pressures could be achieved at one pull.
A small selection of figures:
4. Tiger, p. 171.
[From Thomas Bewick My Life, edited by Iain Bain, p. 133-4, 138 (spelling and punctuation as given in the original manuscript)]
While the sale of the Quadrupeds was going on, edition after edition with great success, I turned my thoughts to the History of British Birds.[...]Pennant’s Works [...] opened out the largest field of information, and on his works I bestowed the most attention. [...] As soon as it was spread abroad that we were engaged with the history of birds and their figures, I was, in consequence, led into a seemingly endless correspondence with friends and amateurs.[...] At the beginning of this undertaking, I made up my mind to copy nothing from the works of others but to stick to nature as closely as I could. And for this purpose, I was invited by Mr Constable, the then owner of Wycliffe [in North Yorkshire near Barnard Castle], to visit the extensive museum there, collected by the late Marmaduke Tunstall Esqre [the same as had commissioned The Chillingham Bull in 1789], to make drawings of the birds. I set off from Newcastle on 16 of July 1791 (the day on which my friend Dr Bailes died) and remained there, drawing from the stuffed specimens, nearly two months. [...] As soon as I arrived in Newcastle, I immediately began to engrave from the drawings of the birds I had made at Wycliffe, but I had not been long thus engaged ’till I found the very great difference between preserved specimens and those from nature, no regard having been paid at that time to place the former in their proper attitudes, nor to place the different seeries of feathers, so as to fall properly upon each other. This has always given me a great deal of trouble to get at the markings of the dishevelled plumage, and when done with every pains, I never felt satisfied with them. I was on this account driven to wait for birds newly shot, or brought to me alive, and in the intervals employed my time in designing and engraving tail pieces or vignettes.[...] After working many a late hour upon the cuts, the first volume of the book was, at length, finished at press in September 1797.
The first volume of British Birds was started soon after the great success of the Quadrupeds in in 1790. It did not appear until 1797, again being largely engraved in Bewick’s ‘spare time’. It was sold for 10 shillings and sixpence (half a guinea), or just over half a pound. There are 118 main figures (with another 20 added in a supplement to later editions). In addition to the figures there are many vignette tailpieces at the ends of the sections of writing please go to the Vignettes page to see samples of these.
A small selection of figures:
[From Thomas Bewick My Life, edited by Iain Bain, p. 142–3 (spelling and punctuation as given in the original manuscript)]
As soon as each bird was finished on the wood, I set about describing it from my specimen - and at the same time consulted every authority I could meet with to know what had been said, and this together with what I knew from my own knowledge, were then compared, and in this way, I finished, as truely as I could, the second volume of the History of British Birds. I also examined the first volume with a view to correct its errors, and also to add many new figures and descriptions of them to it. Although all this of thus taking the whole upon me, could not be done, but by close and indeed severe confinement and application, yet I was supported under these by the extreme pleasure I felt in depicturing and describing these beautiful and very interesting aerial wanderers of the British Isles. I also hoped that my labours might perhaps have the effect of inveigling my youthfull countrymen, as far as I could, to be smitten with the charms which this branch – and indeed every other department of natural history imparts, and these endless pleasures they afford to all who wish to trace nature up to Nature’s God. [...]
While I was engaged with the figures of the Water Birds and the vignettes, and writing the history, this business was greatly retarded by my being obliged often to lay that work aside and to do various other jobs in the wood engraving, and also the work of the shop for my customers in the town, but particularly, writing engraving...
The second volume of British Birds was devoted to Water Birds and appeared in 1804. It contained 101 figures in the first edition, with a larger number of vignettes, of which some samples are to be seen on the Vignettes page. Supplementary figures were added to later editions.
A small selection of figures:
[From Thomas Bewick My Life, edited by Iain Bain, p. 146-7 (spelling and punctuation as given in the original manuscript)]
During a severe illness, with which I was visited in April 1812, [...] I determined, if I did recover, to go on with a publication of Esop’s Fables [...] As soon as I was so far recovered as to be able to sit at the window at home, I immediately began to draw designs upon the wood of the fables and vignettes, and to me this was a delightfull task. In impatiently pushing forward to get to press with the publication, I availed myself of the help of my pupils, (my son [Robert], William Harvey and William Temple) who were also eager to do their utmost to forward me in the engraving business and in my struggles to get the book ushered into the world. Notwithstanding the pleasurable business of bringing out this publication, I felt it also an arduous undertaking. The execution of the fine work of the cuts, during the day light, was very trying to the eyes, and the compiling or writing the book by candle light in my evenings at home, together injured the optic nerve and that put the rest of the nerves out of tune, so that I was obliged for a short time, to leave off this intense application untill I somewhat recovered the proper tone of memory and sight again. I found in this book more difficulties to conquer than I had experienced with either the Quadrupeds or the Birds. The book was finished at press on the 1st October 1818 and was not so well printed as I expected and wished – the ink for such fine work being much too strong, black and thick. I am pleased to find the second edition, December 1823, better printed and better managed in other respects.
The Fables were projected long before the engraving work was begun in 1811; some of the drawings may have been done by Johnson, who died in 1796. (Iain Bain has shown how the claim by Chatto and Jackson that Johnson designed all the drawings for the Fables is quite wrong.) The title–page clearly says ‘Designs on Wood by Thomas Bewick’. In fact, one of Bewick’s letters acknowledges the work done by the apprentices in cutting the blocks, but it meant that he had to take greater care to fill in the detail of the drawings, and supervise the work of the ‘boys’, making necessary changes to the blocks as he thought fit before considering them finished. There are various ancestor works to this collection, especially Samuel Croxall’s book of the same title published in 1722, which was very well known to Bewick. It seems clear that Bewick borrowed compositional ideas from Croxall. Despite such influence and the notable contributions of his son Robert (now his partner) and the apprentices William Harvey and William Temple, the work remains Bewick’s in both essence and impact.
A small selection of figures: