The Northumbrian wood engraver, artist, illustrator and naturalist, Thomas Bewick (1753-1828), was the subject of a fascinating talk to the Bakewell and District Probus Club by one of its members, Don Mackenzie, who opened his presentation by describing Bewick’s skilled technique of creating finely detailed prints from blocks cut across the grain of boxwood. These prints were used as illustrations in Bewick’s own books, notably ‘A General History of Quadrupeds’ (1790) and ‘A History of British Birds’ (1797 & 1804) all of which portray atmospheric scenes of the 18th century Northumberland countryside.
Born in Cherryburn near Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Bewick’s interest in wildlife and the countryside developed while truanting from an austere school environment, and it was during these absences from school that he acquired his skill for drawing. Eventually, frustrated by his pupil’s continuing unruly behaviour, his schoolmaster, employing a gentle and novel approach untypical of the time, explained to Bewick the error of his ways and thereafter there was a marked improvement.
On reaching the age of fourteen, Bewick was apprenticed for seven years to Ralph Beilby, who owned a respected engraving business in Newcastle. Initially trained in a range of techniques including making his own tools, it soon became apparent that his real skill lay in wood engraving. After completing his apprenticeship Bewick spent some time in London before returning to the Northeast. Here he was offered a partnership by Beilby, eventually taking the business over.
The speaker continued his narrative by discussing some aspects of Bewick’s life away from his work. An enthusiastic member of a debating club (Swarley’s) in Newcastle he sometimes found himself at odds with the policies of the William Pitt government which, at this time (during the Napoleonic Wars), was attempting to suppress free speech. Linked with this, the slave trade was under review, and Bewick produced prints illustrating slaves loading tobacco into barrels for a Yorkshire importer. He also engraved the seal for the 'Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade'. With its famous depiction of a kneeling black man in chains with his hands raised to the heavens, it is inscribed with the phrase "Am I not a man and a brother?” and was used as a cameo on Jasper Ware china produced by Josiah Wedgwood, a keen abolitionist.
Bewick was a strongly religious person. His belief was as enlightened as it could be for the time, accepting the allegorical nature of the Old Testament and the uncertainty of the age of the Earth. He believed that the environment and the life therein were the result of Intelligent Design by God.
Details of the Bakewell and District Probus Club, including reports of earlier meetings, can be found on its website at www.bakewellprobus.org