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2002-12, 336, Book Reviews, Michael O'Brien

‘John Bewick: Engraver on Wood, 1760–1795:’

John Bewick: Engraver on Wood, 1760–1795: an Appreciation of his Life together with a Catalogue of his Illustrations and Designs.

Nigel Tattersfield. London: The British Library (a co-publication with New Castle, Delaware, Oak Knoll Press). 2001. 256pp. ISBN 0 7123 4707 0. £45.

John Bewick was the perhaps lesser-known brother of the famous Thomas Bewick (1753 1828), who is remembered both for his Memoir (first published in 1862) and his superb wood and copper engravings. There are two principal parts of Nigel Tattersfield’s book: a short biography of John and the catalogue.

This book draws on largely unpublished correspondence, John Bewick’s own ledger dating from 1791, and a painstaking investigation of the collection of Bewick material presented to the British Museum by his niece Isabella in 1883. The biography is lucid and informative. The catalogue is well-researched, clearly presented and easily understood. Many of the cuts are included as illustrations and all have a characteristic clarity. There are separate parts on books, broadsides and periodicals; newspapers, puzzles and games; other ephemera; unattributed publications and miscellaneous works. Each entry is listed in an unambiguous full bibliographic style and the size, format and source of the original is noted. Appendices list the goods (and library) he left his brother John and the 68 books he illustrated. There is a comprehensive bibliography and the book is scrupulously referenced. It will, I am confident, be the standard work on John Bewick.

There is ample treatment of the cooperation between the two brothers. A good example is the work in printer W. Bulmer’s Poems by Goldsmith and Parnell, London, 1795 (reprinted in 1804). John helped to design the fourteen blocks in this book, although Thomas did most of the engraving. Bulmer advertised this volume as being “particularly meant to combine the various beauties of Printing, Type-Founding, Engraving, and Paper-making; as well as with a view to ascertain the near approach to perfection which these arts have attained in this country, as to invite a fair competition with the best typographical productions of other nations”. The frontispiece engraved by John matches Bulmer’s description that “it seems almost impossible that such delicate effects could be obtained from blocks of wood”. Bulmer, it seems, made the handsome profit of more than £1500 from this project’s two printings: a fact that Tattersfield extracts from an 1842 Encyclopaedia of Literary and Typographical Anecdotes, exemplifying the depth of his research.

So where does John Bewick rate as an illustrator? Walter Crane’s Of the Decorative Illustration of Books Old and New (1896) relegates him to membership of his elder brother’s school. John Rayner’s King Penguin Wood Engravings by Thomas Bewick (1947) notes that John has been regarded as “a wood engraver of great promise who died young”, but one who “had time to emerge from the comparative crudity of style the chief charm of which [was] its naivety”. His one illustration by JB emphasises this point. Tattersfield’s book shows even at a cursory glance that the judgement was poor and the example unfairly chosen.

Until now, it has been difficult to reassess John’s skills. The previous chief catalogue, Thomas Hugo’s The Bewick Collector: a Descriptive Catalogue of the Works of Thomas and John Bewick (1866, reissued in 1968) makes it difficult to distinguish the works of each brother. Many books had cuts not only by both brothers, but also ones designed by one of them and executed by the other or their apprentices. But this present work removes this difficulty as far as it is possible and places John in his rightful position: an artist of distinct ability with a style and workmanship the equal of his brother’s. He can also be seen as a more interpretive illustrator than his older brother, who designed more from real life.

I was interested to find that Esslemont published a limited edition of a selection of twenty-two pages of John Bewick’s engravings in 1980 as unbound sheets for binding at £150 and that it appears to be still available. Tattersfield has already published Bookplates by Beilby & Bewick; a volume dealing with the book illustrations of the Beilby-Bewick workshop is in preparation. This present work was the winner of a Harvey Darton Award for 2001: it can be highly recommended.

Michael O’Brien

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