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Why Bewick Succeeded A Note in the History of Wood Engraving   By: (1909-2001)

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A Note in the History of Wood Engraving








By Jacob Kainen

A Note in the History of Wood Engraving

Thomas Bewick has been acclaimed as the pioneer of modern wood engraving whose genius brought this popular medium to prominence. This study shows that certain technological developments prepared a path for Bewick and helped give his work its unique character.

The Author: Jacob Kainen is curator of graphic arts, Museum of History and Technology, in the Smithsonian Institution's United States National Museum.

No other artist has approached Thomas Bewick (1753 1828) as the chronicler of English rustic life. The little wood engravings which he turned out in such great number were records of typical scenes and episodes, but the artist could also give them social and moral overtones. Such an approach has attracted numerous admirers who have held him in esteem as an undoubted homespun genius. The fact that he had no formal training as a wood engraver, and actually never had a lesson in drawing, made his native inspiration seem all the more authentic.

The Contemporary View of Bewick

After 1790, when his A general history of quadrupeds appeared with its vivid animals and its humorous and mordant tailpiece vignettes, he was hailed in terms that have hardly been matched for adulation. Certainly no mere book illustrator ever received equal acclaim. He was pronounced a great artist, a great man, an outstanding moralist and reformer, and the master of a new pictorial method. This flood of eulogy rose increasingly during his lifetime and continued throughout the remainder of the 19th century. It came from literary men and women who saw him as the artist of the common man; from the pious who recognized him as a commentator on the vanities and hardships of life (but who sometimes deplored the frankness of his subjects); from bibliophiles who welcomed him as a revolutionary illustrator; and from fellow wood engravers for whom he was the indispensable trail blazer.

During the initial wave of Bewick appreciation, the usually sober Wordsworth wrote in the 1805 edition of Lyrical ballads :[1]

O now that the genius of Bewick were mine, And the skill which he learned on the banks of the Tyne! Then the Muses might deal with me just as they chose, For I'd take my last leave both of verse and of prose. What feats would I work with my magical hand! Book learning and books would be banished the land.

If art critics as a class were the most conservative in their estimates of his ability, it was one of the most eminent, John Ruskin, whose praise went to most extravagant lengths. Bewick, he asserted, as late as 1890,[2] "... without training, was Holbein's equal ... in this frame are set together a drawing by Hans Holbein, and one by Thomas Bewick. I know which is most scholarly; but I do not know which is best." Linking Bewick with Botticelli as a draughtsman, he added:[3] "I know no drawing so subtle as Bewick's since the fifteenth century, except Holbein's and Turner's." And as a typical example of popular appreciation, the following, from the June 1828 issue of Blackwood's Magazine , appearing a few months before Bewick's death, should suffice:

Have we forgotten, in our hurried and imperfect enumeration of wise worthies, have we forgotten " The Genius that dwells on the banks of the Tyne ," the matchless, Inimitable Bewick? No. His books lie in our parlour, dining room, drawing room, study table, and are never out of place or time. Happy old man! The delight of childhood, manhood, decaying age! A moral in every tail piece a sermon in every vignette... Continue reading book >>

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