Thomas Bewick: the complete illustrative work, by Nigel Tattersfield

Published on 09 April 2012 in Book reviews

British Library/Oak Knoll Press, 2011; hbk, 3 vols, 1,580pp in total, lavishly illustrated in black and white; ISBN 978-0-7123-0686-7

Subbuteo code M21205, £160.00

No ornithologist will ever regard Thomas Bewick, known primarily for The History of British Birds (1797-1804), as a naturalist of the same standing as contemporaries such as Edward Donovan, John Latham and James Bolton. Equally, no-one has ever read Edward Thornton’s The Temple of Flora (1799) as a serious work of botany. But both Bewick and Thornton in their different ways defined a certain English Romantic sensibility which persists to this day. Thornton published very large plates of exotic plants and placed them in dramatic settings, while Bewick did almost the exact opposite – using tiny woodcut vignettes of native birds which he positioned in a naturalistic landscape, while adding tiny humorous vignettes which commented on the world of man.

Bewick was aware that his role was to offer a modest guide to birds that the common man not only could afford but would also want to possess. Nigel Tattersfield, whose three magnificent volumes are a monumental survey of Bewick’s full range of work, as artist, craftsman and commercial publisher, focuses his attention on the way in which Bewick’s success was largely due to his business instincts. While Donovan’s large-format and lavishly illustrated £15 ten-volume edition of hand-coloured plates sold slowly and made little money, Bewick knew that, at a time of war shortages and financial crises, a two-volume book costing a mere guinea (the equivalent of £1.05) was bound to do well. Not only was Bewick’s British Birds small enough to accompany the nature lover in the field, it was also likely to appeal to those who were more attracted by the artist’s commitment to the tradition of British woodblock printing, which he developed to a sublime degree. With such a combination of shrewd business practice and a unique artistic vision (not common among artists and craftsmen, and certainly lacking in Thornton), Bewick could hardly fail. Indeed, British Birds proved such a success in his lifetime and beyond that many admiring publishers shamelessly plagiarised his designs. Today, whether on National Trust tea towels or biscuit tins, Bewick’s images are immediately recognisable. There is even a swan named after him.

Bewick may not have been a scientist, but he was a perfectionist and having been disappointed in the condition of stuffed specimens available to him, he turned for subjects to ‘birds newly shot or brought to me alive’. His task then was to draw and paint in watercolour and afterwards engrave the cuts, with the help of some gifted pupils, like John Anderson and Luke Clennell. Though Bewick was initially keen to research his subject, in the end the letterpress descriptions were entirely the work of his partner Ralph Beilby, who was also no naturalist, but a failed author who took most of his information from printed sources. In the end, though, the text to Bewick’s masterpiece becomes almost extraneous. The same cannot be said of Tattersfield’s text, which reflects a lifetime of scholarly dedication to his subject.

R. M. Healey

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