THOMAS BEWICK (1753-1828)

Thomas Bewick was an artist, engraver and naturalist born across the river from Ovingham at Cherryburn near Eltringham. He was educated in the vicarage school room opposite Ovingham’s parish church of St Mary the Virgin where he is buried along with his family.

Bewick refined and revitalised the art of wood engraving in Georgian England and his beautifully illustrated History of British Birds and A History of Quadrupeds, along with Gilbert White’s Natural History of Selborne, were seminal to the development of knowledge about the natural world and the way that it came to be viewed.

Thomas Bewick Bust
Bust of Thomas Bewick by E. H. Bailey 1825 – Newcastle Literary & Philosophical Society

Thomas Bewick was apprenticed to engraver Ralph Beilby in Newcastle upon Tyne which was in the C18 an important centre for printing. He became a partner in the business, eventually taking it over in 1797. Bewick trained numerous apprentices including John Anderson, Luke Clennell, and William Harvey, along with his brother John and son Robert. They in turn became well known as painters and engravers.

Bewick is probably best known today for his History of British Birds, admired mainly for its wood engravings, especially the small, sharply observed, and often humorous vignettes known as tail-pieces which draw on the landscape, people and life in Ovingham, Cherryburn and around. As Jenny Uglow author of Nature’s Engraver: A Life of Thomas Bewick has put it ‘Bewick’s art is universal, but it is rooted in Northumberland and in the valley of the Tyne.’ (Uglow’s book is available to purchase at Elmhurst and some prints by Bewick and his workshop can be viewed there.)

As an artist, wood engraver, and observer of the natural world Bewick had a keen interest and involvement in radical politics. He was also a prolific walker. Leaving the Newcastle workshop each weekend to return to Cherryburn he walked the 15 miles or so along the Tyne Valley to take the ferry from Ovingham to Cherryburn. Longer walking tours were a regular feature of his life: touring Scotland via Cumberland or ‘tramping’ the east coast to Berwick via Lindisfarne.

Books about Thomas BewickBewick’s engravings, books, box wood blocks and tools are on display at Cherryburn, the National Trust cottage, farm and printing workshop which is open to the public from February to November each year.

Further examples of his work are on display in Newcastle upon Tyne at the Laing Art Gallery and Central Library.

You can find out more about the work of Thomas Bewick and further information about where his work can be viewed in the north east and elsewhere on the Bewick Society website.