A wonderful portrait of the man whose exquisite woodcuts of landscapes and creatures reflected the essence of British rural life.
Uglow (The Lunar Men, 2002, etc.) 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.