Bewick, Thomas: Vignettes (c1800)

The Independent's Great Art series

Tom Lubbock
Friday 15 December 2006 01:00

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About the artist

In M R James's ghost story "Casting the Runes", a man has got on the wrong side of the powers of darkness. A spell has been laid upon him. He now lives in dread. He feels he is being continually watched and followed. He has dreams. Then things start arriving in the post. "One was a woodcut of Bewick's, roughly torn out of the page: one which shows a moonlit road and a man walking along it, followed by an awful demon creature. Under it were written the lines out of the 'Ancient Mariner' (which I suppose the cut illustrates) about one who, having once looked round - walks on,/ And turns no more his head,/ Because he knows a frightful fiend/ Doth close behind him tread." The man also receives a calendar with all the dates ripped out after 18 September. His days are numbered.

Montague Rhodes James was a medievalist and a biblical scholar. His expertise informs his fantasy. Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, written as Christmas entertainments, very often involve inscriptions and manuscripts and old books. Like Borges, James delights in the fictional but plausible work of literature. In "Casting the Runes", he also contrives a fictional work of art.

Though a contemporary of Coleridge, the engraver Thomas Bewick never made any woodcuts illustrating "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner", nor do any of his works quite correspond to the one described in this passage. Still, it's a good fake. Many of Bewick's woodcuts have travellers. Some of them have moonlight and demons, too. You can see what James had in mind.

But, more than that, the choice of Bewick is a stroke of inspiration. There's something about his pictures that makes them perfect emblems of fear and loneliness. Or rather, there's something about one type of picture Bewick made: his vignettes. These were little, informal images that served as visual punctuation in his illustrated books of natural history. Bewick would drop one in to mark the end of a chapter. They generally show a scene of country life. The images on this page are two among hundreds. Exquisite miniatures, they are triumphs of the woodcutter's art and his most original invention.

The crucial point about Bewick's vignettes is that they don't have a de-fined edge. They're not bounded by a formal rectangle or oval. The image is just a patch, an irregular but roughly ovoid area, floating on the white page. If you look at where the scene comes to a stop, you see that its borders sometimes correspond to the contours of some object in the scene. The image's edge is the edge of a rock, a hill, a bush, a tree. Or sometimes, with a stretch of ground or water or sky, the image just fades out at the margin. Either way, unlike most pictures, these vignettes lack a window frame.

Properly framed pictures offer you a view. They show a section of the world, and they imply that the world extends unseen beyond the frame. The picture is just an extract. The scene continues off-picture. Not so the vignette. In the vignette, the scene does not lead off-picture. You notice how, in Bewick, things like trees and houses are never half-cutoff by the edge of the image, to suggest that the world goes on. Things exist whole and entire within it.

In the vignette, each scene becomes a little world, a contained environment, like a desert island or a snow-dome. Whatever the scene shows, there is no elsewhere, no alternative. Vignettes create inescapable situations. If it's raining, then you see a world where rain is the only possibility. It's like being in the middle of unrelenting, unending rain. If the scene shows a bare rock out at sea, with the waves breaking on it, then absolute and total remoteness is the only story. It's not a view but a fixated vision.

And when there are figures in the scene, they're confined there. They have literally no exit. Look at one of the vignettes with a figure in, and try to imagine the figure leaving the picture. What would happen when it met the edge, when it tried to cross the border? It would just start to dema-terialise. So the figure in a Bewick vignette is in a peculiar relationship to the scene it inhabits. You don't see a person who just happens to occupy this one particular spot in the wide world. You see a person who is attached to the setting they're in, like a model soldier is attached to its green base.

The figure is more or less in the centre of the image. Its surroundings become its personal space, its present situation, its own little world - almost its thought-bubble. Bewick's vignettes are images of immediate experience. They communicate what it's like to be in the middle of something, to feel things in the present tense, and to be entirely absorbed in your sensations.

That can be an idyllic state, of course. And one of Bewick's favourite subjects is a man lolling on a grassy verge, nestling happily in his image as in a cradle. But he is equally drawn to isolated and desolate states. A man travels across terrain in wet and darkness, literally unable to see very far, and psychologically engulfed by his immediate situation. He may be on the move, but what the scene shows is not the landscape he's moving through; it's the small patch of the world illuminated by the beam of his present consciousness.

Whether or not there's an actual demon around, all Bewick's travellers are like Coleridge's walker, who fears there's a fiend lurking just beyond his vision. They're hemmed in by the little worlds, the little fields of consciousness, that surround them.

The tone of Bewick's work is by no means all doomy. It can be homely and curious and comic. But his basic image device, the vignette, might have been made for madness and haunting. It is an image of mental enclosure, of despair and solitude and paranoia.

About the artist

Thomas Bewick (1753-1828) worked on a miniature scale, but in his way he is the complete English artist - master of a highly inventive graphic technique, strong on empirical observation, with a vein of fantasy and of comedy too. His woodcut volumes, A History of Quadrupeds and A History of British Birds, acquired a proverbial character, providing standard popular images of birds and animals for generations. His vignettes are little spells. A biography of Bewick, Nature's Engraver by Jenny Uglow, was recently published. An exhibition of illustrations to "The Ancient Mariner" - not including any Bewicks - has opened at the Wordsworth Trust in the Lake District. The vignettes mentioned above appear in the book 1800 Woodcuts by Thomas Bewick and His School, edited by Blanche Cirker (Dover Press).

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