THOMAS BEWICK WOOD ENGRAVER
I mentioned Thomas Bewick before, and have long loved his wonderfully detailed wood engravings. So a visit to the cottage Cherryburn which was his birthplace in 1753, and the small museum attached was something I was really looking forward too, especially after the somewhat harrowing visit to Jarrow.
Having been forewarned that the cottage was down a single track lane, once again it was an early morning start; we arrived well before seven and sorted ourselves so Thebus had an easy escape from the somewhat small carpark. Well - probably only small if you are driving a ten metre bus.
The museum didn’t open until later in the morning, but it was a beautiful valley to look out over, and was a lovely soft autumn day. Bewick was enchanted by the natural world, and having seen the place he was born and spent his childhood I could see why. When I went on up the house it was charming, though my initial impression was I would never have called it a cottage but labelled it a quite substantial farmhouse.
This was explained when I got inside. The family had moved to a cottage - still in existence behind the house and farmed there, and also mined coal from a leased drift mine further on up the hill. They would have taken the leases on just when coal was becoming was increasingly in demand and the larger farmhouse (in which the museum is sited) was built by Thomas’s brother some time later
The old cottage in the farmyard behind was very atmospheric and was furnished in sympathy with the times with the help of some of the pencil drawings completed by Thomas in his younger days
He was apprenticed out at fourteen to Beilby in Newcastle - later famous for his enamelled glassware, but the business produced many engravings - trade cards, bookplates, jewellery cutlery, in fact all sorts of jobbing engraving work, but all done to the highest standards
Thomas Bewick introduced a technique of engraving on the end grain of wood, giving a much more sensitive print than either woodcuts or metal engravings, and the quality of his wood engravings, both technically and artistically is quite outstanding. He was renown in his own time, and his book ‘A History of British Birds’ and was the forerunner of all modern field guides - Bewick’s Swan was named for him, and there is a lovely engraving done by his son Robert Bewick.
Bewick’s famous bird book plays a recurring role in Charlotte Brontë's novel Jane Eyre. And William Wordsworth praised Bewick in the first lines of a poem - "Oh now that the genius of Bewick were mine, And the skill which he learned on the banks of the Tyne.”
A true natural observer he was also interested in the arts and wrote to a friend about the Northumbrian Pipes - "At one time I was afraid that these old tunes, and this ancient instrument, might from neglect of encouragement get out of use, and I did everything in my power to prevent this and to revive it, by urging Peacock** to teach pupils to become masters of this kind of music; and I flatter myself my efforts were not lost.” In fact his son Robert was one of Peacocks pupils and produced 5 manuscript books of Northumbrian small pipe tunes Three of these, signed by Robert, and dated between 1832 and 1843, give a very detailed picture of the broad repertoire of a Northumbrian piper at this early stage in the instrument's development, only a few decades after the earliest keyed chanters appeared.
There are several sensitive paintings of Thomas at various stages of his life, and he looks to be the sort of person it would have been a privilege to know, his kindness and intelligence seems to shine out through his eyes
He had a real affinity for animals and was an early campaigner for their fair treatment, and some of his prints on display in the little museum brought tears to the eyes. In particular his last, and unfinished work, the engraving “Waiting for Death” - depicting an old bony work horse, once a fine hunter, now left out in a field to die of hunger and cold; a scene he had witnessed and sketched as an apprentice
**John Peacock was a small pipes player, and the last of the Newcastle waites.
From medieval times up to the beginning of the 19th century every town and city of any note had a band of waites. Their duties varied but included playing their instruments through the town at night, waking the townsfolk on dark winter mornings by playing under their windows, welcoming Royal visitors by playing at the town gates, and leading the Mayor's procession on civic occasions. Waits were provided with salaries, liveries and silver chains of office, bearing the town's arms.
As a result of the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835, waits were abolished, though their name lingered on as Christmas Waits, who could be any group of singers or musicians who formed a band in order to sing and play carols for money around their town or village at night over the Christmas period. My mother could remember the City Waites singing carols through the town on Christmas Eve after everyone was asleep in bed, then they would come back next morning to collect any donations. What a wonderful thing to lie in bed as a child and listen to the sound of carols in the still of the night before Christmas Day