Nature’s Engraver: A Life of Thomas Bewick, by Jenny Uglow

September 25, 2007 at 1:11 pm (Anglophilia, Art, Book review)

I did not expect to be so caught up in the biography of someone I’d never heard of – but I loved this book! Thomas Bewick brought the art of wood engraving to a new height of excellence in the course of his long and productive life. Jenny Uglow has made the Northumberland of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century live again in Nature’s Engraver. Already there was a sense that the rural life of England’s north country was on the brink of change. But as a youth, Thomas Bewick could still revel in what seems to us now a kind of unspoiled, bucolic Eden.

And revel in it he did. Bewick was wild and hated school. He might have become a wastrel but he had a gift: he could draw. At the age of fourteen he was apprenticed to engraver Ralph Bielby. Bielby’s shop proved the perfect place for young Bewick; his talent was given scope to grow and mature. Eventually he started a shop of his own, ultimately becoming England’s premier wood engraver and book illustrator. His lifelong love of nature led him to produce a volume on quadrupeds, then most famously, on British birds. This is the book in which Jane Eyre is immersed at the beginning of Charlotte Bronte’s novel. She is grateful – desperately and poignantly so – for the escape and solace afforded her by Bewick’s masterwork. She especially loves the passages in the introduction “…which treat of the haunts of sea-fowl; the ‘solitary rocks and promontories’ by them only inhabited; of the coast of Norway, studded with isles from its southern extremity, the Lindeness, or Naze, to the North Cape… ‘Where the Northern Ocean, in vast whirls, / Boils round the naked, melancholy isles / Of farthest Thule; and the Atlantic surge / Pours in among the stormy Hebrides.'”

The book is studded with marvelous description: “Looking north, [Bewick] saw farms and villages backed by distant blue mountains; to the west the long line of the Cheviots stood out against the sky; to the east lay the castle woods and to the south stretched the park with its deer and hares and wild cattle.” Uglow brings this remote northern clime vividly to life; I felt myself to be deeply embedded therein, and, at the book’s conclusion, very reluctant to bid it farewell.

My husband and I often marvel at how the tiny isles comprising Great Britain have managed to produce so many world class achievers in virtually every field of human endeavor. In addition to the many famous individuals, Jenny Uglow has reminded us of one less well known, who deserves to be studied and remembered.

In Nature’s Engraver, numerous examples of Thomas Bewick’s art are reproduced. I find, however, that these miniature masterpieces are even more striking when viewed thus:

2 Comments

  1. C.C. said,

    You said here what I am trying to say in my own blog post so very well! I am trying to extoll the virtues of Jenny Uglow’s book about Thomas Bewick.

    I would like to refer to this post in my post, hope you don’t mind.

    Thank you for sharing your impressions – I am totally in agreement.
    -Cirrelda in Albuquerque

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Thanks so much, C.C. Feel free to link to my post – I’d consider it a compliment!
      Don’t know if you’ve browsed Books to the Ceiling very much, but I’ve written about New Mexico,one of my favorite places.

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