A General History of Quadrupeds Spread 0

A General History of Quadrupeds Spread 0 cover


Thomas Bewick was born in August 1753 at Cherryburn in the parish of Ovingham, Northumberland. His parents were the tenants of a small eight acre farm with an adjacent colliery and Thomas, being the eldest of eight children, was expected to help with the chores. His love of the surrounding countryside and close experience of the natural world were to have a considerable influence on his later work.

Thomas was a reluctant pupil at the local school in the nearby village of Ovingham and he often amused himself by sketching in the margins of his books. His artistic skill developed and at the age of fourteen he was apprenticed to Ralph Beilby, the owner of an engraving business in Newcastle. During his seven year apprenticeship he was instructed in all the skills of the engraving business but his talent for wood engraving was soon recognised.

On completing his apprenticeship Thomas spent some time away from Northumberland in Scotland and London, but he returned to Newcastle and by 1777 was in partnership with his former teacher, Ralph Beilby.

The engraving business of Beilby and Bewick flourished and over the years a number of talented apprentices worked under Bewick although he was evidently not the easiest of men to work with. The output of the workshop was general and various with work being carried out on printing banknotes, billheads and labels for local manufacturers as well as illustrations for numerous publications.

The business prospered and besides producing illustrations for other peoples publications Bewick became intent on producing his own books. His love of natural history, coupled with his dissatisfaction with the generally poor quality of illustrations of wildlife at the time, encouraged Bewick and Beilby to produce A General History of Quadrupeds. Bewick drew on his own extensive knowledge of British animals for the etchings and Beilby contributed the text. Bewick preferred working from life to get the greatest detail; for the more exotic creatures he relied on private collections and touring shows and he also copied from other sources such as Dr Smellie’s Abridgement of Buffon and other naturalists. His vivid vignettes scattered throughout the book depict everyday life of the country people with humour and accuracy.

Bewick and Beilby worked on this book for five years beginning in 1785. The first edition was eventually published in 1790 with the intention of encouraging the youth of the day into the study of natural history. It was so successful that a second printing followed almost immediately and by 1824 eight editions had been published. The first edition of Quadrupeds contained 200 figures and 103 tail-pieces. By 1824 the number of images had risen to 222 figures and 108 tail-pieces. This copy is the fifth edition published in 1807 and printed by Edward Walker for T. Bewick and S. Hodgson in Newcastle upon Tyne. The vignette on the title page states: ‘OMNE BONUM DE SUPER. OPERA DEI MIRIFICA – All good comes from above. Wonderful are God’s works.’

The partnership of Bewick and Beilby ended acrimoniously in January 1798. Bewick retained the engraving business and continued to work until his death in 1828 at the age of seventy five when his son Robert took over the business.

Thomas Bewick was a celebrity in his own lifetime and the interest in his life and works continued long after his death. When Isabella, the last surviving member of Bewick’s four children, died the wealth of watercolour and pencil drawings, woodblocks and engravings which had been collected over many years were dispersed. One of the collectors of Bewick memorabilia was John William Pease who bequeathed his collection to Newcastle Libraries on his death in 1901. This collection, known as the Pease Collection, is still housed in the City Library and will be given pride of place as part of the Newcastle Collection in the brand new City Library which is due to open in Newcastle in the summer of 2009.

Collection: Pease
Number: 36