Archive for Engravings

A Memoir of Thomas Bewick

Posted in Art, Education, History, Politics with tags , , , on January 11, 2022 by telescoper

Thomas Bewick (1753-1828) was a superb illustrator and natural historian who lived in the North East of England. He is celebrated primarily for his fine engravings and woodcuts of wild animals and birds, and humorous vignettes, some of which are quite cheeky, such as this one called “Man Pissing”…

Man Pissing (c.1797, wood engraving on laid paper, 8.9 x 12.5 cm)

You can find many other examples of his fine work here.

Bewick also held radical political views in a time of great social unrest across the continent of Europe. His views were heavily influenced by the terrible conditions of the rural poor in his native Northumberland and the corruption of the Government. In 1822 he began to write his Memoir, which is absolutely fascinating, not least because part of it is devoted to his views about the British Government and the media of the time. Two hundred years later, many of his words still ring true.

Here’s an excerpt from a section covering the period from about 1818 to 1823, a period of domestic instability in Britain that led to acts of protest and brutal suppression, including the Peterloo Massacre of 1819:

The pen of literature was prostituted to overshade the actions of good men, and to gloss-over the enormities of the base. The energies of many members of both Houses of Parliament were unavailing against this compact confederacy of undeserving placemen and pensioners, who were bound together by fellow feelings of self-interest, in which all ideas of public trust were lost in private considerations. They had sinned themselves out of all shame. This phalanx have kept their ground, and will do so till, it is to be feared, violence from an enraged people breaks them up, or, perhaps, till the growing opinions against such a crooked order of conducting the affairs of this great nation becomes quite apparent to an immense majority, whose frowns may have the power of bringing the agents of government to pause upon the brink of the precipice on which they stand, and to provide in time, by wise and honest measures, to avert the coming storm.

A Memoir of Thomas Bewick, Written by himself, CHAPTER XVII.

Plus ça change

P.S. Not far from where I grew up in Newcastle upon Tyne there is a school for children and young adults with autism called the Thomas Bewick School. His name is well known in the Newcastle area for that reason and his artistic legacy, but I’m not sure his memory is as widely celebrated as it should be. He was a fascinating character.