Thomas Bewick

Thomas BewickThomas Bewick was born in August 1753 at Cherryburn House in the parish of Ovingham, Northumberland.  Thomas was the eldest of eight children born to John and Jane Bewick and the family lived on a small eight acre farm.  Being surrounded by wildlife in his formative years will, no doubt, have had a great influence on his work in later life.

Thomas went to school in nearby Ovingham and at the age of fourteen undertook an apprenticeship with Ralph Beilby, the owner of an engraving business in Newcastle upon Tyne.

Beilby soon recognised Bewick’s talents, in particular his skill for woodcut engraving.  During this time Bewick worked on a number of projects including Tommy Trip’s History of Beasts also known as A Pretty Book of Pictures for Little Masters and Misses.

After the completion of his apprenticeship, Bewick decided to explore the beauty of Scotland and set out alone on a four hundred mile trip, which he described as “a time of great enjoyment” in his Memoir.

A horseOn his return, Bewick wasted no time in continuing his travels, this time in London.  However, he quickly became disillusioned with the capital city and returned home to Newcastle upon Tyne only nine months later where he became a business partner of his former tutor Ralph Beilby in 1777.

In 1786, the year after both his parents died, Bewick married Isabella Elliot in St John’s Church, Newcastle.  They were subsequently to have four children.

The Beilby and Bewick business flourished and the talented pair started work on the General History of Quadrupeds which was published in 1790.  It was some seven years later before volume one of the History of British Birds – Land Birds was published.  During this period the relationship between the two became strained and after a time of dissatisfaction the partnership ended.  Beilby retired from the business and Bewick became solely responsible for the second volume of the History of Birds – Water Birds which was published in 1804.

Coal Certificate extract : a view of newcastle from the riverIn 1811, after convalescing from an illness, Bewick started work on his last book, Fables of Aesop and Others.  Engravings were designed on the wood by Bewick while cutting was carried out by his apprentices under close supervision.  Where necessary they were refined by their master.  The book contained many fine examples of superb engravings; however, it never claimed the affection or popularity of the Quadrupeds and Birds.

Thomas Bewick died in 1828 at the age of seventy-five.  His business was left to his son Robert who later published further editions of the Birds.