Progressive Agenda

John Brewer

  • The Watercolours and Drawings of Thomas Bewick and his Workshop Apprentices by Iain Bain
    Gordon Fraser, 233 pp, £125.00, July 1981, ISBN 0 86092 057 7

Thomas Bewick was a creature of paradox: an artist who laboured as a craftsman, a proud provincial whose work achieved national fame, a portrayer of the countryside who spent most of his life in an industrial town, and a rational man of the Enlightenment who fed the fierce streams of Romanticism. Thanks to four people – Bewick himself, who wrote a marvellous autobiographical Memoir, his two spinster daughters, who nursed and guarded his reputation with ferocious filial piety, and now Iain Bain, whose sympathetic but rigorous scholarship is epitomised by his two-volume monograph on Bewick’s watercolours and drawings – as much is probably known about Bewick, despite his minor status among the luminaries of British art, as about any other native artist. Born in Northumberland in 1753, Bewick was apprenticed to a Newcastle engraver. After a youthful excursus to Scotland, which he loved, and to London, which he loathed, he returned to his native Tyneside, where he spent the rest of his life practising as a job engraver and book illustrator until his death in 1828. By the end of his life, thanks largely to his illustrations for A General History of the Quadrupeds (1790) and for the even more popular History of British Birds (1797), Bewick had acquired national renown as the artist who most truthfully depicted the flora and fauna of the British countryside.

Bewick’s achievement was both technical and aesthetic. Unlike most earlier book illustrators, he worked in wood, not copper. He took a vernacular skill and made it into an art, transforming the rude woodcut which had formerly been relegated to the local tavern wall into an elegantly executed image of sufficient sophistication to find its way into a gentleman’s library. Bewick perfected a method of working against the grain on hard boxwood. By combining the use of an engraving tool which was usually used for copperplate work with the much harder wooden surface, Bewick produced blocks which achieved remarkable clarity of detail and were far more durable than their metal counterparts. In sum, he pioneered and popularised (though he did not invent) a technique that was used extensively in 19th-century European book illustration and which meant that quality reproduction could be achieved at a relatively low cost.

Bewick’s reputation does not, however, despite his own fascination with technique, rest upon the technical aspects of his craft: it is for his depiction of the birds and beasts of the field that he is remembered. The British, even when they are slaughtering such animals, are of course notoriously sentimental about any creature covered by feather or fur. But it would be wrong to assume that the 18th-century market for animal illustration could have been captured with little or no imaginative effort. Earlier attempts to depict the victims of the sportsman’s gun, trap or snare had failed, while Bewick was unanimously praised. It is easy to see why. Most animal and bird illustration of the period either pursued the sterile exactitude of the anatomist or degenerated into a sentimental and usually inaccurate rendition of the poor creature in question. Bewick, however, reconciled nature, science and art. His engravings of British birds, which represent his work at its finest, are almost all rendered with the precision of the ornithologist: but they also portray the animals in their natural habitat – the grouse shelters in his covert, the green woodpecker perches on a gnarled branch, waders strut by streams, while the marine birds are framed by craggy rocks and pebble beaches. Most of the best engravings include a figure, incident or building which draws the viewer’s eye beyond and behind the animal profile in the foreground. Thus the ploughboy in the distant field pulls our gaze past the yellow wagtail, over a gently flowing stream and into a rustic landscape.

As bird succeeds bird and beast follows beast, the prints enhance our sense not merely of the complexity of the animal kingdom but also of the diversity and plenitude of the English countryside. This effect is powerfully enforced by the vignettes and tail-pieces that Bewick engraved to end each section of his books. These fables, proverbs, moral tales and local scenes almost invariably depict figures in a rural landscape: rustics like the mower and shepherd labour at their daily tasks, children play with boats and kites, anglers and sportsmen pursue their quarry. The scenes are often droll, occasionally lachrymose and invariably informed by a strong sense of man’s relation to nature.

The illustration that eventually appeared in Bewick’s books was the result of a painstaking process in the course of which he prepared numerous preliminary drawings and watercolours. Their publication in Bain’s sumptuously-illustrated monograph not only tells us much about the way Bewick and his young apprentices worked, but also reminds us of the graphic power of his engraving. Compared with his prints, Bewick’s watercolours are disappointing. His birds and animals, for all their delicacy of tone, are both less animate and less substantial than their equivalent engravings. And the watercolour vignettes, many of which were prepared by Bewick’s apprentices, also lack the visual power and presence of the final print. The most successful watercolours are those that include the pastoral detail that was often only added when the final woodblock was engraved. But even here the preliminary study demonstrates the superiority of the print. The success of Bewick’s vignettes frequently depends on a small detail – a date or motto, an incident or symbol in the background – which gives the scene its meaning and narrative power. In the watercolours these are often difficult to discern: in the engravings Bewick’s sharp lines make them perspicuous and clear.

It was this ‘truest feeling for nature’ that excited the envy of Wordsworth, caused the heart of the young Jane Eyre to palpitate, drew encomiums from Ruskin and made Bewick so accessible to the Romantic sensibility. By the time of his death the Newcastle engraver had been typecast as a rude original and untutored rustic. The admiring condescension of the ornithologist James Audubon, who described Bewick as ‘purely a son of nature’, typifies an attitude that still prevails today. Indeed, it is the wistful desire of the sophisticated metropolitan intelligentsia for the imagined simplicities of rural life that explains Bewick’s continued appearance in that least bucolic of publications, the New York Review of Books.

In many ways Bewick was the figure of his admirers’ fancy. He idealised rural life, encouraging the aspiring young artist to retreat to the countryside and to shun the unhealthy atmosphere of the city. Proudly provincial, he despised the metropolis, peppered his Memoir with Northumbrian dialect, and showed, especially in his vignettes, not so much an attachment to the countryside in general as a deep affection for the particular scenes of his native Northumberland. In his pronouncements on art Bewick disparaged academicism and praised nature as the only true source of aesthetic inspiration. ‘Had I been a painter,’ he wrote in his Memoir, ‘I never would have copied the Works of “0ld Masters” ... I would have gone to nature for all my patterns, for she exhibits an endless variety – not possible to be surpassed and scarcely ever to be equalled.’ And, he adds emphatically, ‘in art nothing is worth looking at but such productions as have been faithfully copied from nature.’

Here, it would seem, is the Mr Bewick whom the urban sentimentalist likes to love: the rustic, the provincial, the naif, a man whose life and work speak of simple virtues and values that are deeply admired and whose demise is wistfully regretted. Seen in this light, Bewick personifies a pastoral golden age, a world that both 19th-century critics and 20th-century commentators feel we have irredeemably lost. It is, of course, a world which neither we nor Thomas Bewick ever had. Both Bewick’s graphic work and his Memoir reveal a far more complicated man and a far more complex culture than the widespread apprehension of Bewick as an untutored rustic would lead us to believe.

Bewick may have been bluff and candid but he was never artless. His Memoir, written when he heard that ‘more than one literary character’ was planning his biography, is a remarkably skilful and disingenuous apologia, intended to establish his stature both as an artist and as a moralist. Bewick rejected academicism not out of ignorance but out of choice. His Romantic aesthetic, the emphasis on ‘true’ art as the mirror of nature, and his frequently reiterated belief that artistic ability was innate, reinforced his view of himself as a major artist. The very qualities that might normally have excluded him from the pantheon of British artists – lack of formal training, the mundane subject-matter of his work and the humble status of his medium – are transformed by Bewick into precisely those attributes that identify him as a major Romantic figure.

Bewick may have done this unwittingly, but I doubt it. His Memoir is far too knowing and far too full of literary allusion. What are we to make of this homo rusticus who quotes Dr Johnson, uses James Thomson as a model for his rural descriptions, praises Bacon and Locke, refers to the poetry of Thomas Gray, Allen Ramsay and Oliver Goldsmith, casually mentions that he does not need to read David Hume on miracles, and obliquely compares his own work with that of Milton? There is a paradox here: the more Bewick strove to establish his credentials as an artist, the more apparent it becomes that he was not the bon sauvage he was portrayed to be. Indeed, he lived for nearly all of his life in Newcastle, a thriving industrial city, spent most of his working hours producing commercial engravings, and made a major contribution to the urban culture of one of England’s larger provincial towns.

Bewick’s urban role was twofold. As a professional engraver who relied for his bread and butter on job work, he provided much of the visual language of local commerce; and as a citizen concerned with civic improvement, he devoted his leisure hours to the enhancement of local cultural life. If an 18th-century inhabitant of Newcastle had purchased a ticket to a ball or a concert, received a bill in a tavern or from a local tradesman, bought tobacco papers, used a local banknote or examined the bookplate of a library or of a friend, he would have found himself admiring some of Bewick’s lesser-known but still beautifully executed engravings. Such work is poorly represented in Bain’s two volumes. Presumably there were few preliminary drawings for most of the day-to-day commercial work. But Bain, who has always emphasised the importance of Bewick’s less famous workshop production, does include one minor masterpiece, Fishermen drying their nets, a vignette depicting an extraordinarily delicate skein that appeared on the £5 note of the Berwick-on-Tweed Bank.

Bewick never disparaged or belittled such work: on the contrary, he regarded it with great pride. Like so many of the skilled artisans whose culture and company he embraced, Bewick believed that commerce, science and industry dispelled ignorance and disseminated culture and refinement. Hence his passion for developing new engraving techniques, his role as a founder of the Newcastle Philosophical Society and his enthusiastic participation in the Newcastle tavern societies and debating-clubs that pursued the goal of political and social improvement. It was probably at these gatherings, attended by tradesmen, artisans, clerks and the occasional gentleman, that Bewick acquired the political, social and religious views that those who wish to treat him as a tame rustic are most eager to neglect or to forget. Bewick was no respecter of authority, no tugger of the rural forelock. In his Memoir he excoriates corrupt and bellicose politicians, proud clerics, bigoted patriots, greedy landlords and idle gentry. He supported the American colonists in their struggle with the Mother Country, endorsed the French Revolution, a measure of Parliamentary reform, the revision of what he saw as a cruel and capricious penal system, and the civic emancipation of British Catholics. Theological controversies that fuelled intolerance and persecution were anathema to him; so were the bigotry and priestcraft that nurtured unthinking superstition.

Bewick’s views on religion are vital to understanding his conception of both art and nature. He saw true religious belief as both ‘natural’ and ‘enlightened’. All men were capable of ‘the morality taught by the Religion of nature’, provided their innate capacity for right reason was not constrained by false authority or corrupted by false ideas. God was everywhere in nature and everywhere capable of rational comprehension. The accurate and sympathetic representation of the environment was therefore not merely a pleasure but an obligation, whose successful accomplishment meant that the artist was also a teacher of ‘true’ morality. The depiction of nature was not a sentimental affectation, but part of a progressive agenda to dispel ignorance and improve the lot of mankind. The premise of this view was clearly egalitarian and its implications clearly reformist. Here Bewick is the Enlightenment citizen of letters, the cosmopolitan friend of Tom Paine rather than the provincial protégé of Ruskin.

Bewick’s commercial work, urban activities and radical views are rarely included in any assessment of his art, even though they are essential if we are to grasp the meaning of his work. Passages in the Memoir that discuss job engraving, workshop conflict and Bewick’s political and religious views were often condemned, or even excised, by fastidious editors, who found such matters either aesthetically or politically distasteful. This cannot be said of Bain. Both in the introduction to these volumes and in his definitive edition of the Memoir, he shows a refreshing willingness to discuss the less easily romanticised aspects of Bewick’s life and art. But Bain, despite his exhaustive erudition – no one knows Bewick better – does not explain how Bewick could see urban improvement, radical religion and politics, and a passion for the countryside, as compatible and complementary.

The reluctance of most of Bewick’s admirers to grapple with his complexity stems partly from ignorance. But it is also symptomatic of a prevailing attitude towards the depiction of the British countryside and of rural life. Nowadays the pastoral scene is big business. The public’s appetite for rustic picture-books, diaries of rural folk and charming tales of village life seems insatiable. Not since the 1930s – interestingly enough, another era of economic depression – has the business of peddling pastoral bliss been so profitable. Much of this literature is ‘golden-ageism’ at its worst. Its notion of true rural values is retrospective and conservative and its attitude towards rural life patronising in the extreme. Bewick’s life and work belie such views, and it would be a disservice to Iain Bain, the scholar who has done so much to enhance our appreciation of Bewick, if we were to continue to treat a brilliant illustrator and complex individual as a rustic man of straw.