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.
LRB 18 March 1982 | PDF Download