July 1, 2011

Thomas Bewick, Master Engraver

        Thomas Bewick (1753-1828) is generally considered to be the artist who brought the  wood engraving medium to its pinnacle.  Certainly when you look at his work it's easy to recognize the skill of his shading and modelling, and the wonderful, fine detail of his images.  Plus there are a few special things about Bewick that make his work particularly interesting.
        First of all, although he was apprenticed to an engraver at age 14 and made wood engravings for the rest of his life, it was his skill at drawing that caught everyone's attention.  In other words, he was not like the earlier Formschneider whose job was to carve out other people's designs. His works were designed, drawn, and carved by himself.  I don't know that he was the first to do this, but he was certainly on the leading edge of artists doing their own drawing and carving.  (He also pioneered the use of metal engraving-type tools on end grain of harder woods, the technique wood engravers have used ever since.)  There's more information on Bewick's
technique, as well as lots more about him at The Bewick Society.
        Bewick's most famous book was the History of British Birds, published from 1797-1804.  He produced a few other books on natural history, too.  He wrote the books, designed the illustrations, and produced them, making him an early example of an author/illustrator, not to mention an accomplished naturalist.  (He did also illustrate books written by others, and later in his life he had apprentices doing much of his carving and some drawing, too, but he was certainly able to do it all when he wanted to!)
        Over the course of his life he illustrated several books of fables, and these are credited with being among the first books for children in which the illustrations are equal to the text in importance and quality.  Due to the constraints of end-grain engraving, his pictures are usually quite small, but they have a concern for good design and an attention to detail that was very unusual in illustrations made for children.

        So in some ways even though I don't do engraving and don't even always care for Bewick's style of engraving, I still have a lot to thank him for.  His influence can certainly be felt in the fact that I design and carve my own work, and in the fact that I can both write and illustrate my own books, and even in the very idea of picture books with really great illustrations!  So, thank you, Thomas Bewick!

[Pictures:  "Barn Owl Tyto alba," wood engraving by T. Bewick from History of British Birds, 1797(?);
     "Red Sandpiper Tringa Islandica," wood engraving by T. Bewick from History of British Birds, 1804(?);
     "The Ant and the Fly," wood engraving by T. Bewick from Select Fables of Aesop and Others, 1818;
     "The Mice in Council," wood engraving by T. Bewick from Select Fables of Aesop and Others, 1818.]

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