Richard P. Feynman
First published in two separate volumes between 1797 and 1804, Thomas Bewick’s A History of British Birds was the first field guide to appear in Britain. Unlike the massive folios that preceded it, this lively work was intended to sit in a capacious coat pocket, so that the novice ornithologist could use it to check the feathered legs of a barn owl or distinguish between a shrike and a woodchat. It is a serious guide, written with a countryman’s understanding of nature and a scholar’s knowledge of classifications. For his engravings, Bewick used many sources, but he preferred to draw from life, complaining how many errors there were in previous books, and how stiff the illustrations copied from stuffed specimens appeared. Indeed, the accuracy and detail of Bewick’s observations stand up well today.
Bewick was not only, or even primarily, a naturalist. His major occupation was as an artist-engraver who revolutionised the craft of wood-engraving. A History of British Birds is his masterpiece, with more than 250 engravings for each volume, one of each bird and a tail-piece showing a vignette of country life. Together with his text, these images make Bewick’s Birds, as it is known, one of the most influential and best-loved works of British natural history.
Thomas Bewick was born in 1753 and grew up in the Tyne valley countryside. He showed an early interest in art, and at 14 he was apprenticed to the engraver Ralph Beilby in Newcastle. At the time, the woodcut was considered a cruder medium than fine copper engraving. Bewick’s genius was to realise that if he carved in hard woods, against the grain, he could create fine detail and improve the quality of repeated printings. Bewick’s innovative methods revolutionised printed works, and are still used today.
Bewick’s engravings are so finely detailed that it is even possible to distinguish individual feathers, but perhaps his greatest gift was to capture the true character of each bird. His subjects are full of life and seem poised to launch themselves skywards at any second. His skill sprang from long years of work as an artist-engraver, but also from his intimate knowledge and love of the natural world, nurtured since childhood. Bewick had a particular love for birds, keeping a tame swallow who ‘when sitting for its portrait, watched every motion, and at every look of the eye, when pointedly directed towards it, ran close up to the graver.’ Appropriately two birds were named after him: Bewick’s swan and Bewick’s wren.
Bewick was blessed with a sharp and humorous eye that shows in his writing as well as in his art. His enthusiasm and charm is evident on every page, whether he is testifying to the ‘very delicious eating’ of a guinea fowl egg, rebuking gardeners who fear the damage blue tits will do to plants without thanking them for the caterpillars they consume, or receiving a live puffin through the post (it bit one unfortunate man’s finger to the bone).
Bewick’s A History of British Birds was a phenomenal success, fostering an interest in birds and a love of natural history in ordinary people as well as amongst the wealthy. The great American ornithologist John James Audubon was inspired by Bewick’s attention to living postures and character, while as a child Beatrix Potter attempted to imitate the artist, copying his woodcuts to practise drawing and even attempting to create her own prints with an ink made from soot.
Writers were particularly attracted to Bewick’s entrancing mixture of storytelling and naturalism: Tennyson and William Wordsworth were both fascinated with his works. The novelist Charles Kingsley wrote that when his own father had bought one of the first copies, ‘he was laughed at in the New Forest for having bought a book about “dickybirds” – til his fellow squires, borrowing the book of him, agreed that it was the most clever book they had ever seen and a revelation to them, who had had these phenomena under their eyes all their lives, and never noticed them.’
This edition is quarter-bound in blue leather with traditional raised bands on the spine and hand-marbled paper sides, modelled after fine 18th-century bindings. The type has been reset using the 1826 edition which was the final edition printed during Bewick’s lifetime and revised by him in person.
Bewick was so skilled as an engraver that he was able to use the texture of his wood to create a tonal range – shades of grey added subtlety to his pictures beyond the simple black and white lines that could be normally achieved in woodcut. His mastery of this technique, using the very grain of the wood, allowed him to give a lifelike texture to grass, feathers and fur.
Reproducing the engravings called for a highly skilled and technical approach. The Folio Society consulted Iain Bain, printing historian and expert on Bewick, who recommended using the 1848 edition which he considers the best edition ever printed from the original wood blocks. Each engraving was scanned by a specialist art reprographer. Normally engravings are printed black only, but because of the tonal range of Bewick’s images, the illustrations in this edition have been printed in duotone to allow the full range of detail and shading to be seen. We believe that this is the finest reproduction yet produced.
Each entry for a bird contains an engraving of the bird itself and also a tail-piece, or ‘tale-piece’ as Bewick named them; vignettes that reveal 18th-century rural life, morality and sensibilities. They range from the eerie to the comic, from the highly romantic to the everyday: a housewife hangs out her washing oblivious to the dirty pigs rushing through the gate; a fisherman hunches his shoulders against the rain; a farmer swims his cow across a river to avoid the toll (losing his hat in the process); a fishing boat rots on a lonely shore. Each one contains a story, a whole scene in which the viewer finds more and more each time he looks. As the great naturalist Audobon wrote: ‘Look at his tail-pieces, reader, and say if you ever saw so much life represented before.’
Bewick’s biographer, Jenny Uglow, has written an introduction to this Folio Society edition in which she says: ‘It is the combination of all three aspects – the artist, the naturalist, and the story-teller – that makes A History of British Birds a work without parallel, a source of continuous delight.’