Today, I was wandering around my home city of Newcastle when I happened upon a statue of Thomas Bewick (1753-1828), the 18th Century artist and naturalist.
It set me thinking about Bewick’s work which combines two of my greatest passions – art and wildlife.
One of the places that I always visit in spring is Cherryburn, his historic home, not far from where I live.
Bewick was one of the great pioneers of nature illustration in Georgian England.
He worked mainly on wood engravings and prints but also dabbled in painting and drawing, and his works were hugely influential.
If you’ll excuse the pun, his engravings were a cut above his contemporaries in both their technical and artistic prowess.
William Wordsworth called him “the poet who lived on the banks of the Tyne”.
Novelist Charlotte Bronte, John Ruskin and Thomas Carlyle were also huge fans.
Charlotte Bronte refers to his work in the opening of Jane Eyre when the book’s heroine retires behind a curtain to pour over Bewick’s illustrated History of British Birds.
Another admirer, Victorian artist and critic John Ruskin, compared the quality of his drawing to the great masters Holbein and Turner.
Ruskin saw him as an unschooled native genius with an authentic touch and a rootedness in country life.
A world in miniature
The skill and authenticity of Bewick’s engravings were what first attracted me to his work.
Bewick’s illustrations of rural England range from birds and beasts to country life and characters.
They are delightful not just because they are beautiful illustrations but they are as true to nature and everyday life as Bewick could make them.
Remember this was an era where Bewick didn’t have access to modern gadgets such as cameras, digital technology or the internet.
Everything he created had to be done pretty much from observation – from what he saw in the fields, hedgerows, trees and rivers near where he lived.
Bewick’s books have strange and slightly archaic titles like A General History of Quadropeds, The History of British Birds and Select Fables of Aesop.
But his illustrations remain as fresh as they were 250 years ago when he engraved the original versions in blocks of wood.
Thomas Bewick’s groundbreaking techniques were well ahead of his time and this is why they are so compelling today.
Unlike his predecessors, he carved his work in harder woods, particularly box wood against the grain, using fine tools used by metal engravers.
Flipping open the pages of a reproduction of one of his books is a treat, which not only takes you back in time but also makes you think about nature in its finest detail.
The illustrations in Bewick’s History of British Birds, published between 1797-1804, leap off the pages and are imprinted with Bewick’s passion for wildlife.
Bewick had an excellent knowledge of the habits of animals which he had developed during his regular excursions into the countryside.
Like his contemporaries, he got to know nature through hunting but soon realised that there was more to wildlife than shooting or trapping wild animals.
He was one of a handful of early ornithologists. In his autobiography he recalls shooting a bullfinch and instantly regretting killing the bird.
“This was the last bird I killed,” he wrote in his journals.
It’s a story that is echoed 200 years later when Sir Peter Scott (the great British modern conservationist) shot a goose as a young man and saw the distress of the bird’s mate.
Similarly, Bewick developed a passion for bird watching, even though early equipment such as spy glasses and telescopes were only available to a few.
The British book was published in two volumes, Land Birds and Water Birds, with an extra supplement in 1821.
Bird watchers from across the country also sent him information, and even supplied him with dead specimens to draw from.
His passion for ornithology was so influential that two birds were later named after him – Bewick’s Swan and Bewick’s Wren.
Animals of the world
Bewick’s General History of Quadrupeds (1790) illustrates mammals of the world including tigers, elephants, rhinos, seals and bats.
I love the fact that he captured many of these images without encountering some of the creatures… but his research was meticulous.
His fierce tiger burning bright remains a pretty accurate depiction of the big cat which Bewick made for Gilbert Pidcock, owner of a travelling menagerie (a collection of caged wild animals).
Bewick often had to rely on other artists’ drawings and stuffed specimens in museums and collections to capture the accurate detailing.
Cherryburn – Bewick’s cottage home
Thomas Bewick was born at Cherryburn in August 1753, one of eight children. His father was a farmer and tenant of a colliery who sold coal to local people.
As a young lad Bewick developed an interest in the countryside.
He had no formal training in art although he was apprenticed to Ralph Beilby, an engraver in the city of Newcastle (about 7 miles away) from the age of 14.
When he wanted to go back home, it would take him three hours to walk to Cherryburn to visit his parents.
But he persisted in his studies at the Newcastle workshop and succeeded in carving a name for himself – quite literally.
After finishing his apprenticeship he set off on a 350 mile walk around Scotland which he called his “wild goose chase in the Highlands”.
His travels were a great way of learning about nature and many of the animals he saw were captured in Bewick’s art – from red deer to birds of prey.
Today, it’s a humbling experience to visit Bewick’s childhood home at Cherryburn.
The farmhouse was the original family home and its austere interior gives a good impression of the cramped conditions his family would have lived in during the late 1700s.
The kitchen, dining and living area are combined in one stone-floored space with a hearth. One can only imagine how he and his seven siblings lived in this small space with their parents.
Opposite a small hallway the bedroom is small and divides into a couple of sections.
Although it looks cosy, it must’ve been cold and cramped in Bewick’s day.
The biggest plus of this farmhouse was the outdoors paddock area with views across the Tyne Valley beyond.
In later year, the family built an adjacent cottage with additional rooms and ‘mod cons’, which provides a fascinating contrast to the more spartan farmhouse over the way.
Today, it houses a small but fascinating museum featuring collections of Bewick’s works and family artefacts from the period.
One of the treats is reading from Bewick’s writings and diaries which provide a fascinating insight into his life and art in Georgian England.
Tammy’s top tips
Cherryburn is a National Trust property and will be reopen for spring on 17 February, 2013.
The cottage, farm and museum are located at Station Bank, Mickley on the outskirts of Prudhoe in Northumberland. It’s about a 14 minute drive from nearby Newcastle upon Tyne.
Car parking is available next to the cottage.
Railway stations are located at Stocksfield (1½ miles) and Prudhoe (1½ miles), but both are a vigorous walk – or a quick taxi ride.
Don’t miss a visit to see the print room wood blocks where there are demonstrations of the tools and craft of wood engraving.
There’s also a good display of Bewick’s personal items and artistic works in the cottage lounge and entrance area.
Explore the cottage gardens, farmyard and paddock walk for sense of Bewick’s period – and don’t forget to look in on the donkeys!
For a good biography of the artist, check out Nature’s Engraver A Life of Thomas Bewick by Jenny Uglow.
The Bewick Society website also has a comprehensive collection of information about Bewick’s life and work.
On the Bewick trail
If you’re visiting Newcastle not far from Cherryburn, why not take a brief heritage trail following the key sites associated with Thomas Bewick.
Start at Newcastle’s Central Station and walk straight ahead of you to Bewick Street and Square, the sites of a number of interesting historic sites.
When you’re on Bewick Street, look on the pavement and you’ll see a commemorative panel featuring Bewick’s famous Chillingham Bull illustration beneath your feet.
Bewick walked 45 miles from Newcastle to Chillingham in Northumberland on an Easter Sunday in 1789 to see the white-coloured, wild cattle.
Can you imagine walking that distance to capture a photograph or draw an animal today?
Thomas Bewick recounts how he crept around on his hands and knees in the woods to keep out of sight and capture the bull’s full glory.
Look up at the streetscape and you’ll also see a couple of buildings which also have associations with the artist.
Retrace your steps back to the station and turn down Neville Street and walks towards St Nicholas’ Cathedral.
En route you’ll see Newcastle’s Literary and Philosophical Society on your right.
If you have time, go inside this impressive historic building and look for the marble bust of Thomas Bewick.
It’s also worth looking around the library to get a feel for other interesting facets of the Georgian period.
Then, continue along Collingwood Street towards St Nicholas’ Cathedral
Once you’ve reached the cathedral yard, follow the back alley down towards Amen Corner where there are a couple of locations associated with the artist.
The site of the workshop where Bewick trained as an engraver can be found opposite the cathedral churchyard.
To the right is another site of an earlier workshop where Bewick worked.
You can’t miss it because there’s a bust and plaque to the artist on the wall of the red brick building.
Sadly, no remnants of the original building can be seen today.
The commemorative bust of Bewick was put in this place by the city elders in 1905.
It is actually a bronze copy of the marble bust of Bewick in the Newcastle Lit and Phil building mentioned above.
There’s also another site of a former Bewick workshop opposite where Milburn House (a much later building) now stands.
The whole area gives an authentic feel of the narrow alleys and stairs which characterised the period in which Bewick lived, even if many of the buildings today were added much later.
It’s amazing to think that this master craftsman walked these very streets…