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date: 24 February 2021

Bewick, Thomasfree

  • Iain Bain

Thomas Bewick (1753–1828)

by James Ramsay, 1823

Bewick, Thomas (1753–1828), wood-engraver, was born at Cherryburn, Eltringham, Northumberland, on 10 or 12 August 1753, the eldest of the four sons and five daughters of John Bewick (bap. 1715, d. 1785), a tenant farmer and collier, and his second wife, Jane Wilson (1727–1785), of Ainstable, Cumberland. His paternal grandfather, also Thomas Bewick (1685–1742), had held the same tenancy.

Early life, apprenticeship, and first years of freedom

The principal source for Bewick's early life is his autobiographical Memoir, written between 1822 and 1828, prompted by his family and spurred on by the threatened attempts of several contemporaries whom he considered ill-suited to the task. It was published by his daughter Jane in 1862, and he would have been surprised, though gratified, to find it established as a minor classic, not only on account of his importance as an artist and engraver and as ‘the father of modern wood engraving’, but also for his unique record of a north-country childhood and life as a craftsman in late Georgian England.

In the account of his early youth on the banks of the Tyne Bewick's growing passion for natural history is vividly recorded in his recollection of rural Northumberland and its inhabitants through the changing seasons. His first schoolmaster was so hopeless and the delights of the countryside so strong that truancy was inevitable; in time his father begged the Revd Christopher Gregson, vicar of Ovingham, to take him on, and here his lively nature was somewhat tamed. An early impulse to draw constantly filled the margins of his schoolbooks; the hearthstone was a makeshift sketchpad for his chalks. He soon, in the opinion of his 'rustic neighbours, became an eminent painter, and the walls of their houses were ornamented with an abundance' of his 'rude productions'—chiefly hunting scenes—'at a very cheap rate' (Memoir, 5).

On 1 October 1767, through the influence of his godmother Mrs Simons, Bewick was apprenticed to Ralph Beilby (1743–1817) of Newcastle upon Tyne, the son of a Durham silversmith, and at that time the sole general engraver in the town. Leaving the countryside to lodge with Beilby was a severe wrench:

to part from the country & to leave all its beauties behind me, with which all my life I had been charmed in an extreme degree, & in a way I cannot describe—I can only say my heart was like to break.

Memoir, 36

Beilby's trade was all-embracing. Although he was almost wholly concerned with the engraving of metal, from copper printing plates and domestic silver to clock faces, bottle moulds, coffin plates, and dog collars, he was clearly a good master, and the seven-year apprenticeship served young Bewick well. In his Memoir he wrote:

I think he was the best master in the World, for learning Boys, for he obliged them to put their hands to every variety of Work—every job, coarse or fine, either in cutting or engraving I did as well as I could, cheerfully, but the wearisome business of polishing copper plates and hardening and polishing steel seals, was always irksome to me—I had wrought at this a long time, & at the coarsest kind of engraving … 'till my hands became as hard & enlarged as those of a blacksmith.

ibid., 40–41

In 1768 the mathematician Charles Hutton commissioned Beilby to cut the geometrical figures on wood for his Treatise on Mensuration, and later claimed to have introduced the necessary tools and materials to him from London. Despite this claim, the use of wood as an engraving material first appears in Beilby's records in 1766. As he apparently had little liking for the medium, Hutton's commission was left to Bewick, who took to the simple reproductive work with some facility. Although it was only a minor part of the workshop activity, further commissions for engraving on wood now began to come in from north-country printers and tradesmen—a figure of St George and the dragon for a Penrith innkeeper attracted attention, and a series of forty-eight small cuts for A New Lottery Book of Birds and Beasts for Children to Learn their Letters by, printed in 1771 by Thomas Saint for William Charnley of Newcastle, gave the first hint of Bewick's skill in the drawing of animals.

In the last few months of his time Bewick began engraving the cuts for Fables by the Late Mr Gay (1779), in which the sixty-six headpieces and thirteen tailpiece vignettes begin to foretell the successes of Bewick's prime. The engraving for the fable of the hound and the huntsman so impressed his master that it was sent off, displayed with the text of the fable in a bordered quarto sheet, to the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce in London, and was awarded a premium of 7 guineas on 4 January 1776.

From October 1774 Bewick spent most of his time at home, continuing to engrave for Beilby's workshop and for various printers in Newcastle, but towards the end of this period, delighting in his freedom, he took off for a walking tour into Cumberland to visit relatives, and then north into Scotland, through the Trossachs—a journey of more than 300 miles—before sailing home from Leith to Shields. His experiences form a vivid section of his Memoir.

Almost immediately Bewick decided to sail for London, where he found Newcastle friends and had as many commissions as he could handle from the engravers Isaac Taylor and Thomas Hodgson. Otherwise there was little that he liked about London. He found the people uncongenial and his fellow tradesmen, while anxious to see what he was doing, unwilling to reciprocate. In November 1776, in a letter to his godmother's daughter, Elizabeth Hymers, he wrote:

I must first begin by telling you that I like it (or like to live in it) very badly … and tho' I might always continue to meet with the greatest encouragement imajinable—yet wou'd I rather live in both poverty and insecurity in NCastle.

He felt that she had been dazzled by the city's outward show, whereas he had found it impossible to overlook the many scenes of misery and villainy. She was not surprised at his reaction: 'I thought London wou'd not sute your grave turn.'

Little has been identified of Bewick's work in London before he returned north after no more than nine months, although a hornbook with well-drawn figures of birds and animals demonstrates well why his skill was so valued by his employers, who tried in vain to get him to stay.

The years of Bewick's prime, 1777–1800

Bewick had been unwilling to set up as a rival to Beilby. However, as soon as he returned from London mutual friends persuaded them into a partnership, which lasted for twenty fruitful years and saw the publication of much of the work on which Bewick's wider reputation rests. While the general trade of the workshop continued in metal engraving, with space set aside for the rolling presses used for printing copperplates, the amount of wood-engraving increased, though it seldom amounted to more than 10 percent of any week's activity.

The first thirteen years of the partnership saw the publication of more than eighty small books for children, for which Bewick engraved the illustrations commissioned by some eighteen printers and booksellers—half from Newcastle upon Tyne and the remainder from London, Durham, Berwick upon Tweed, Sunderland, and Glasgow. Such titles as The Tale of Tommy Trip, Cinderella, Goody Goosecap, and Jacky Dandy, as well as many books of fables and riddles and manuals for spelling and reading, made up the bulk of the activity. Apart from the completion of The Fables of the Late Mr Gay (1779), the most notable series of cuts during this time was for the Select Fables, also printed and published by Saint of Newcastle in 1784; the engraving here began to show real accomplishment in design and the handling of texture, light, and shade.

On 20 April 1786 Bewick married Isabella Elliot (1752–1826), the daughter of an Ovingham farmer and a woman of much practical good sense. They lived in a house in Circus Lane, at the Forth, a district beyond the western side of the old city wall, which had once been the home of Charles Hutton. The workshop, in St Nicholas's churchyard, was about fifteen minutes' walk from the Forth. Four children were born and brought up here: Jane Bewick, the eldest, was to become her father's business manager; Robert Elliot Bewick [see under Bewick family], the second child, was apprenticed to his father and became his partner in 1812. Bewick's letters to his children, and their replies, written when they took their annual holiday by the sea at Tynemouth and when their father was occasionally away from home, show them united in their affection for one another. They were well educated, and the surviving lists of the books in the house show them to have been widely read.

Of all the images associated with Bewick's name, the large engraving of The Chillingham Bull (525 × 7710 in.), commissioned by Marmaduke Tunstall of Wycliffe, North Riding of Yorkshire, has attracted most attention. It was printed in 1789 with the intention that it should eventually accompany an account of the wild white cattle being prepared by Tunstall. Bewick used the opportunity to show that, when needed, wood-engraving could match engraving on copper in its richness of effect. He later wrote to Francis Douce to say that he had been convinced that wood-engraving was capable of greater things than generally imagined. In the masterly treatment of foliage can be seen the influence of the copper-engraver William Woollet, examples of whose work Bewick is known to have owned. The print has been much sought after by collectors on account of early damage suffered by the block, which made perfect impressions rare.

Bewick's national reputation was fully established by his General History of Quadrupeds, published in 1790, and his History of British Birds—land birds in 1797, and water birds in 1804. The inspiration sprang from his great dissatisfaction with the crudely illustrated books of his youth. Although the compilation of the descriptive text for the Quadrupeds began as early as 1781, when Bewick applied to Squire Fenwick of Bywell for the history of his celebrated racehorse Match'em, much of the work relating to the text fell to Beilby:

who being of a bookish, or reading turn, proposed, in his evenings at home, to write or compile the descriptions, but not knowing much about natural history, we got Books on that subject to enable him to form a better notion of these matters; with this I had little more to do, than in furnishing him, in many conversations & written memorandums, of what I knew of Animals, and of blotting out, in his manuscript what was not truth.

Memoir, 106

The engravings were likewise the work of evenings when Bewick's workshop day was over. Naturally his most successful subjects were those with which he was best acquainted and which he could draw from the life; some of the more exotic he was able to see in the travelling ‘wild beast shows’ of men such as Gilbert Pidcock and Stephen Polito, who in turn commissioned him to engrave large cuts for their posters and handbills.

When published, the Quadrupeds met with much praise, typified by the reaction in a letter written before 23 December 1790 by Matthew Gregson, an upholsterer and member of a Liverpool Print Society, whose members gave it 'the highest Encomiums of Praise' and for whom Gregson ordered sets of fine impressions without text. Other commercial work stemmed from the success of the book, a success which took it to seven editions totalling some 14,000 copies.

By summer 1791 the partners had begun to embark on their next spare-time enterprise. Bewick took time to visit Tunstall's collection of birds to obtain drawings of rare foreign species for what had first been projected as a general history. Ultimately the scope of the book had to be confined to British species and much of the Wycliffe work was set aside. After six years, and with the help of numerous correspondents who contributed both observations and specimens, the first volume of the History of British Birds was published in 1797 to even greater acclaim. Apart from the excellence of the principal figures, the numerous tailpiece vignettes that enlivened every spare space in the book came in for special notice. Of these tailpieces Bewick was later to remark:

When I first undertook my labours in Natural History, my strongest motive was to lead the minds of youth to the study of that delightful pursuit; … I illustrated them with all the fidelity and animation I was able to impart to mere woodcuts without colour; and as instruction is of little avail without constant cheerfulness and occasional amusement, I interspersed the more serious studies with Tale-pieces of gaiety and humour, yet even in these seldom without an endeavour to illustrate some truth, or point some moral.


Apart from lovingly observed landscape settings, the narrative content of many of Bewick's tailpieces is often ironic and displays a mordant view of the world and human folly: in a decaying churchyard a crumbling inscription, 'to the perpetual memory', is washed by the eroding sea; boys who cannot read lead a blind fiddler past a sign warning of man-traps; and a man evading a toll bridge drives his cow through deep water in the river below—losing his hat at a cost far greater than the toll. The gritty reality of the lives of the crippled old soldiers, road menders, blind beggars, and rain-soaked packmen who inhabit Bewick's landscapes is at odds with the sentimental view of those who now reproduce his work on pots and tea towels.

More than 600 blocks had been engraved for the two volumes of the Birds when the last of the eight editions of Bewick's lifetime had been published. The success of the book stimulated a torrent of letters from amateurs of natural history. As there was still much that was inexact in the classification and description of the species, Bewick found himself running a clearing house for information when he had little enough time to run his flourishing business. Any comparison of Bewick's work with that of his predecessors makes clear how original it appeared at the time. Not only was there truth in outline and animated posture, but the habitat was beautifully realized. On 13 November 1797 George Allen the antiquary wrote: 'I am in more raptures than I can possibly express … your ingenious Work … will ever remain inimitable and the Standard of the Art.' In later years the Revd Charles Kingsley wrote, in a letter dated 16 April 1867, of his father's response when a young hunting squire in the New Forest: his neighbours had laughed at him for buying a book about 'dicky birds', but he carried it about with him until their curiosity persuaded them that 'it was the most clever book they had ever seen'.

Two other celebrated books to which Bewick contributed during this period were printed and published in London by William Bulmer, a friend and contemporary who had also served his apprenticeship in Newcastle. The Poems of Goldsmith and Parnell (1795) and Somervile's Chase (1796) were produced for the then flourishing market for ‘fine printing’, and their wood engravings were essential to their success.

The end of the partnership and later years

At the end of 1797, after a growing dissatisfaction on Bewick's part which had first become manifest in 1790, the partnership was brought to an end. Beilby retired to concentrate on his watch-glass manufactory, and so work on the second volume of the Birds became Bewick's responsibility. The text was again a compilation, with assistance from the Revd Henry Cotes and other correspondents and with much recourse to earlier books. There was also greater assistance from the workshop apprentices. When Bewick first joined his partner, who already had Abraham Hunter as an apprentice, he took on his own brother John Bewick (bap. 1760, d. 1795), and during the next twenty years they trained, among others, John Laws (later highly regarded as a silver-engraver), Robert Johnson (a talented watercolourist), and Charlton Nesbit, John Anderson, Henry White, Henry Hole, and William Harvey, all of whom became prominent in the trade [see Bewick, Thomas, apprentices]. In the engraving for the water birds the hand of Luke Clennell is very evident, particularly in many of the tailpieces.

In 1811 work began on Bewick's last book, his Fables of Aesop and Others (1818, 2nd edn 1823). He planned the enterprise during convalescence from illness, writing some fables of his own and reworking or taking unacknowledged contributions from others. The engravings were designed on the wood by Bewick with his drawing finished in the greatest detail; the cutting was done by apprentices under his close supervision and where necessary later refined by their master. Though containing many superb engravings, the book never claimed the affection and popularity of the Quadrupeds and Birds.

Other books of this period, illustrated for the trade and frequently noticed, were Thomson's The Seasons (1805), The Hermit of Warkworth (1805), The Hive of Ancient and Modern Literature (1806), and The Poetical Works of Robert Burns (1808). The designs for many of these were made by artists such as W. M. Craig and John Thurston, with the engraving often given to the apprentices.

The final significant wood-engraving of Bewick's life was an ambitious attempt to combine the effects of multiple blocks, printed in register to give expression to added textures such as driving rain. Intended to revive the moralistic cottage prints of his youth, his work was never fully completed, though he saw first proofs just before he died. Entitled Waiting for Death, and not published until 1832, the large image (1125 × 8½ in.) portrays an aged horse reduced to skin and bone, standing bleakly and unsheltered in a rocky field; the wooded prosperity of a country house is clearly seen in the distance.

Bewick's name has often been falsely attached to other vignette images of his time, and not only to the work of his many apprentices; this has not been helped by the faulty list of attributions made by Chatto and Jackson's Treatise on Wood Engraving (1839) or by the omnivorous collecting of the Revd Thomas Hugo, whose 'optimistic' two-volume catalogue has been the bible of bookseller and collector since it was published in 1866–8. Bewick's signature is rare; ‘TB’ in monogram is the most usual form, with the occasional spelling out of ‘T. Bewick’. After prolonged acquaintance with the finest work in the Birds, his controlled handling of foliage becomes particularly clear to the eye, as does the confident balance of light and shade in his designs. He was what came to be described as a white-line engraver, which is to say that the block surface was seen as a solid black before work began, and that every cut was made to create white light. This was a far more expressive technique and more suited to the artist-engraver, unlike the method of later nineteenth-century reproductive engravers, who would cut away the wood from either side of a previously drawn line. Some idiosyncrasies appear in Bewick's standing figures, which often appear awkward. In his final years, when he was preparing further tailpieces for his books, much of the cutting appears one-directional and reveals a fading nimbleness in the handling of the block. Often incorrectly credited with the invention of engraving on the end-grain of boxwood, Bewick can certainly be described as the reviver and improver of the craft; his delicate use of the technique of lowering those surfaces of the block which were to carry distances or soft textures was unsurpassed. It was of the greatest benefit to him to have had the long discipline of a trade training of great variety: the expression of his genius was thus unhindered by any technical uncertainty or inadequacy. Bewick's success brought respectability to the woodcut as a means of illustration and thus its universal use throughout the nineteenth century; no longer was it confined to the cheap broadsheet. Its capacity for combination with type was crucial, though it has to be remembered that fine engraving required good paper and printing and their attendant costs. As a writing engraver on metal Bewick produced some of the finest provincial banknotes of his time, as well as many excellent trade cards and armorial bookplates. He was much concerned with preventing forgery and was greatly affronted when asked by a government agent to engrave false assignats for circulation in France.

The Memoir is disappointingly short on matters relating to Bewick's engraving methods and more particularly on the training of his pupils. But the survival of a very large part of the BeilbyBewick business records, together with several hundred fine preliminary drawings and a correspondence of more than 2000 letters, reveals much of the workshop's operation. The material relating to the running of the copperplate printing house is unique for the period.

Bewick's sober nature in early manhood changed little in later life. While respecting the opinions of others, he had a hearty contempt for ranters and bigots and the 'chaos of religious works' with which his youthful mind had been confused. His views on education foreshadowed the Education Act by fifty years, and there was much good sense in his attitude to such matters as fish conservation and land enclosure. Described as being 'an interesting-looking old man, of portly size, and of a good-humoured and social temperament' (Memoirs of Dr Robert Blakey, 35–6), with very wide-set eyes, he was convivial, and the company he found in Newcastle's radical debating clubs such as the Brotherly Society, which met at Whitfield's Golden Lion 'to unbend the mind … with a set of staunch advocates for the liberties of Mankind' (Memoir, 132), was essential to him throughout his life.

More sophisticated than the simple artist-craftsman so often portrayed, the rural genius praised by Wordsworth referred in his Memoir to Bacon, Locke, and Hume; he had a good library and a fine collection of prints, and the success of his books made him a man of substance. He had probably been afflicted with consumption in his earlier days, but regular exercise, a sturdy frame, and a robust constitution saw him through both this and a later illness which appears to have been a dangerously severe pleurisy.

In 1812, forced by the end of his tenancy, and not helped by the onset of this illness, Bewick reluctantly moved his family south across the Tyne to a new house on the edge of Gateshead. Despite earlier rash loans and investments, he had accumulated savings enough before he died to buy a freehold and to make over his copyrights and substantial sums in government stocks to his four unmarried children. He continued to walk across to his workshop and remained involved with the later editions of his books. He encouraged his son to work on a History of Fishes, which, through Robert's diffidence, was never published. Journeys to Edinburgh in 1823 and to London in 1828 saw him reunited with old friends and fêted by the naturalists and artists of the day. Bewick died at his home on Mirk Lane, Gateshead, on 8 November 1828, with his place secure in the history of British art and his name destined to be prominent in every history of his craft. He was buried on 13 November at the church of St Mary in Ovingham.


  • C. Hutton, ‘Some account of Mr. Thomas Bewick and other artists, in Newcastle upon Tyne’, Newcastle Magazine (June 1822)
  • J. J. Audubon, Ornithological biography (1831)
  • Memoirs of Dr Robert Blakey, ed. H. Miller (1879)
  • S. Roscoe, Thomas Bewick: a bibliography raisonné (1953)
  • MS corresp., priv. coll.
  • Beilby–Bewick workshop records, Tyne and Wear Archives Service, Newcastle upon Tyne, 1269
  • J. Bewick, MS notes on her father's correspondents, Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne
  • stamp office schedule, priv. coll.
  • parish register, Ovingham, St Mary, 19 Aug 1753 [baptism]
  • monument, St Mary's Church, Ovingham


  • BL, memoir, Add. MS 41481
  • BL, notes and papers for history of British birds, Add. MS 50826
  • Cherryburn, Northumberland, corresp.
  • Harvard U., Houghton L., letters, fms. Typ.434
  • Hornby Art Library, Liverpool, corresp., L3250–3262
  • Hunt. L., letters, HM 17300–17354, 17524–17525, 19744–19752
  • Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne, corresp.
  • London Library, notes and cuttings
  • Natural History Society of Northumbria, Newcastle upon Tyne, corresp.
  • Newcastle Central Library, Pease bequest, corresp.
  • priv. coll., business and family corresp.
  • Tyne and Wear Archives Service, Newcastle upon Tyne, corresp. and papers
  • V&A NAL, corresp. and papers, L 3250–3262
  • BL, corresp. with Sir J. Trevelyan and W. C. Trevelyan, Add. MS 31207
  • BL, corresp. with S. Hodgson, Add. MSS 50241, 50242


  • G. Gray, portrait, 1780, Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne
  • T. A. Kidd, line engraving, pubd 1798 (after Miss Kirkley), BM, NPG
  • W. Nicholson, oils, 1816, Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne
  • J. Ramsay, oils, 1816, Natural History Society of Northumbria
  • T. Ranson, line engraving, pubd 1816 (after W. Nicholson), BM, NPG
  • J. Summerfield, stipple, pubd 1816 (after D. B. Murphy), BM
  • J. Burnet, engraving, 1817 (after Ramsay, 1816)
  • J. Ramsay, oils, 1823, NPG [see illus.]
  • E. H. Baily, bust, 1825 (after life mask), Literary and Philosophical Society of Newcastle upon Tyne
  • T. S. Good, oils, 1828, Natural History Society of Northumbria
  • F. Bacon, line engraving, 1852 (after Ramsay; after The Lost Child), BM, NPG
  • attrib. R. E. Bewick, pen-and-ink sketch, BM
  • E. D. Crawhall, watercolour drawing, Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne
  • J. Ramsay, portrait (after The Last Child, Newcastle Central Library); now missing

Wealth at Death

£1046 15s. 3d. in cash; legacies deducted £600 plus funeral and other expenses of £327 16s. 6d.; stock in trade valued at £530 6s.; household goods and furniture £136 3s. 3d.; plate, linen, and china £64 18s. 6d.; books, prints, and pictures £30 10s.; wines and other liquors £7 10s.; book debts £79 13s. 11d.: will, 3 Dec 1828; stamp office schedule, priv. coll.

British Library, London
Harvard University, Houghton Library
private collection
Huntington Library, San Marino, California
British Museum, London
National Portrait Gallery, London