Nature's Engraver by Jenny Uglow

Scholar of the woods and fields
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The Independent Culture

Thomas Bewick's woodcuts, as Jenny Uglow says, capture moments of miniature intensity. His little tailpieces, used as decoration at the close of the chapter of a book, have an especial power, of humour, melancholy, or simple observation, which draw us in and focus our attention. These tiny vignettes of rural life at the end of the 18th century and beginning of the 19th show us the sights that Bewick encountered on his long perambulations around the countryside of the Tyne Valley: solitary travellers hunched and fighting against an overpowering wind; a man pissing against a wall, casting his shadow on the stones; a coffin, followed by a small procession, carried from a house on a hill to be rowed across the wintry river. And he shows us these scenes with an extraordinary precision. Summing up Bewick's achievement, John Piper wrote that he "had that rarest of qualities - normal, unhampered, unclouded vision".

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. Bewick's own story is relatively uneventful, though he lived in tumultuous times shaped by the roar from revolutionary France. He grew up in the 1760s, an errant, "unguidable", Northumbrian schoolboy, who played truant in all seasons so he could run down by the River Tyne and indulge his growing passion for natural history. An outlet for his artistic talents was found in painting the walls of his neighbours' houses, usually with hunting scenes. At 14, he was apprenticed to Ralph Beilby, who ran a jewellery and engraving business in Newcastle. It was here that Bewick learned his trade in coarse and fine work, cutting or engraving on copper and steel, and on wood. Woodcutting had hitherto been considered the poor relation in the engraver's art, but Bewick revitalised it and made it his own. By the end of the 1770s, while still only in his twenties, Bewick was engraving cuts for Select Fables by the late Mr Gay, and establishing the groundwork of his mature style.

Uglow is fortunate, both in being able to draw on the work of leading Bewick scholars such as Iain Bain and Nigel Tattersfield, and in having a large archive at her disposal. Some 2,000 letters (three-quarters of them addressed to Bewick rather than from him) are known to survive and provide significant insights into the running of his business, first in partnership with Beilby, and then, from 1797, as Bewick branched out on his own. With a wonderfully deft mixture of detail and broad strokes, Uglow describes the busy centre of the Bewick workshop, evoking the hum of activity surrounding relations with the booktrade and customers, Bewick's gentle nurturing of his apprentices, to many of whom he was devoted, and the basic, everyday commissions that ensured its financial survival. Drink was an important source of work, with tavern owners ordering bar bills, like that of the Half-Moon of York, whose bill showed the moon floating "drunkenly but serenely on it side". Bewick's relations with his family, his wife Isabella, four children, including the eldest Jane, who became her father's business manager, and his son Robert who became his partner in 1812, together with his brother John, also an engraver, lend human colour to the monochrome shades of the work.

Social and cultural forces mould and cut across the personal story. One is the explosion, in the second half of the 18th century, of the new market for books for children which Bewick took advantage of, illustrating letters of the alphabet comically and vividly with animals and birds, or with an array of household objects. Another, even more significant, strand is Britain's "Natural History Revolution". In his histories of quadrupeds and British birds, illustrated with wood engravings based, as far as possible, on his own observation, Bewick portrayed animals and birds in their natural settings, offering a field-guide to nature and profoundly influencing the way subsequent generations, adults and children, viewed the natural world. Charles Kingsley remembered the impact of Bewick's history of "dicky-birds". It appeared like "a revelation" to ordinary men and women, "who had had these phenomena under their eyes all their lives", and yet had never noticed them; while the dawning Romantic Age found inspiration in Bewick's powerful vision.

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. Together with Ron Costley, Faber's design director, she has produced a book which beautifully combines the written word with examples of some of Bewick's finest work. It provides a worthy tribute to Thomas Bewick and a delicious treat for readers.