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John Bull as a master of delicacy

26 October 2006

11:19 AM

26 October 2006

11:19 AM

Nature’s Engraver Jenny Uglow

Faber, pp.458, 20

This is a book that tells the reader a great deal about a certain kind of Englishman in his interesting times (1753-1828), and also raises the irritating question — the distinction, if any, between art and craft.

Thomas Bewick, wood-engraver, was a ‘provincial’ craftsman who became a great artist. John Ruskin saw this: ‘The plumage in Bewick’s birds is the most masterly thing ever done in woodcutting; it is worked just as Paolo Veronese would have worked in wood if he had taken to it,’ thereby, it seems, promoting Bewick to the artistic top table. However, Ruskin remains loftily puzzled. ‘Ruskin and his followers,’ says Uglow, ‘placed Bewick as a country clod… because he was uneducated and not a gentleman he could draw the poor but not the rich, “a pig but not an Aphrodite”.’ Ruskin prefaces his high praise with a social qualification — ‘however failing in grace and scholarship’.

The comforting thought is that Bewick wouldn’t have cared a straw, would have snorted, John Bull-like, and gone on (as he did go on) designing labels for beer bottles in order to earn his living. At the same time — usually his spare time, at night, by candlelight — he was engraving tiny scenes and birds and animals with a detailed intensity no one has ever surpassed.

His portrait painted in his sixties confirms his John Bull appearance, ‘a plain, no- nonsense man who worked in a brown silk cap to hide a bald patch, wore worsted stockings, spoiled his children, and went to the pub in the evening’.

Born on the bank of the Tyne, between Hexham and Newcastle, son of a small- holding farmer (also a small mine-owner), his childhood sounds unusually wild. He was systematically a truant from school, to go fishing and to draw obsessively on whatever surface he could find, even gravestones; a gang-leader in mischief and one who learned to stand up for himself.

He was never going to make a farmer. At 14 he was apprenticed to a Newcastle engraver, Ralph Beilby, who was to play a considerable part in Bewick’s life, which is remarkable in its continuity. Soon he could engrave as well as his master, who kept the more interesting work for himself, and Bewick chafed: he never had any doubt about his ability.

Apprenticeship over, a brief time in London, which he loathed, then a return to Newcastle to become, a little doubtfully, Beilby’s partner, and life goes on as before. As she describes this blessed uneventfulness, Uglow sets it all in its social, political, cultural context — the American and French wars, the French Revolution, the coal boom. Bewick plans a book of woodcuts, Quadrupeds (with Beilby’s descriptions), at the same time as Gilbert White is tentatively compiling A Natural History of Selborne.

Nature was becoming fashionable. Bewick did not follow the spirit of the age, he instinctively contained it. Quadrupeds is followed by A History of British Birds, and also a dispute (Bewick could stand up for himself). Beilby, his old master, wanted his own name on the title page: he had written the descriptions, most of which Bewick had had to rewrite. Bewick exploded (he often did) at Beilby ‘taking upon himself the Parade of Authorship and representing me as a Workman to engrave figures to embellish a Work of his composing’. He doesn’t say he was an ‘Artist’, but he knew he was. The matter went to arbitration. Beilby’s name did not appear and Bewick’s became famous throughout Europe.

It was not only his ability to engrave delicate textures of fleece, hide, feathers in a tiny space which was miraculous. It was also the loving way he could catch the natural attitude of an animal, or a bird, or a figure. Uglow’s text is scattered with his ‘cuts’, and sometimes you need a magnifying glass to see the life and humour of the detail.

Now, toff naturalists made detours to see him, finding him (in 1823) as usual in the Blue Bell, reading the newspaper, ‘sitting in an elbow-chair, smoking… a large athletic man, then in his seventy-first year, with thick bushy black hair, retaining his sight so completely as to read aloud rapidly the smallest type of a newspaper… In his underlip he had a prodigious large quid of tobacco, and he leaned on a very thick oaken cudgel cut in the woods.’ He was John Bull, smoking and chewing tobacco at the same time…

Seven years after his death, a new species of swan was discovered in Northumberland, at once officially designated Cygnus Bewickii — Bewick’s Swan. Better than a peerage, and he wouldn’t have given a damn for one anyway: a democrat, a sturdy deist, in his own words ‘a warm Whig’; warm, yes.

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