A History of British Birds vol 2 Water Birds Spread 0

A History of British Birds vol 2 Water Birds 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.

By 1790 Bewick’s own book A General History of Quadrupeds was published and became an immediate success. Following on from this success Bewick and Beilby turned their attention to a companion work on birds; this was to be Bewick’s best work in terms of the quality of drawing. In July 1791 Bewick travelled to Wycliffe Hall near Barnard Castle, the home of the late Marmaduke Tunstall, to research his large collection of stuffed birds. The task was enormous, so Bewick and Beilby decided to concentrate on British birds drawing from living specimens or from fresh specimens sent to Bewick by his friends. A History of British Birds was published in two volumes - volume one Land Birds published in 1797 and volume two Water Birds published in 1804.

By 1826 there were eight editions of Land Birds and six editions of Water Birds. In each new edition Bewick added birds or tail-pieces, replaced old cuts or repaired damage which had been done in the press. The tail-pieces were often of a humorous nature ‘as instruction is of little avail without constant cheerfulness and occasional amusement….yet even in these seldom without an endeavour to illustrate some truth, or point some moral’.

This copy, printed by Edward Walker in 1805, was presented by Bewick to his favourite daughter Elizabeth, and there is inscribed on the title-page of each volume, in his own handwriting, ‘The Gift of Thomas Bewick to his Daughter Elizabeth, 1st of January 1815’. The second volume contains a letter written by Robert Robinson to J. W. Barnes, Jane Bewick’s executor.

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: 81 (vol 2)