Glendale, History Society

View of Breamish and Ingram Valley in the Northumberland National Park.'Picture by Jane Coltman
View of Breamish and Ingram Valley in the Northumberland National Park.'Picture by Jane Coltman

Insight into artist

At the opening meeting of Glendale Local History Society this term, we were fortunate to have Mr Anthony Atkinson, who spoke on Thomas Bewick, Artist and Engraver, a man close to the hearts of many Northumbrians.

Mr Atkinson, a keen historian, works as a volunteer at Cherryburn, the National Trust’s property on the Tyne, which was home to Bewick and where his wood blocks are used to reproduce a limited number of prints each year, depicting a variety of subjects from birds – Bewick’s favourite – to the rural pursuits and homely crafts of Northumbrians from the late 18th century.

Mr Atkinson gave a detailed account of the life of the artist and craftsman, who was born at Cherryburn into a comfortably-off family, the eldest of nine siblings.

His natural history prints are well-known. He has been described as the David Attenborough of the 19th century and one of the top 100 Geordies. He was well known to authors and artists. Charlotte Bronte, who wrote Jane Eyre, said: “Each picture told a story ... with Bewick on my knee I was happy.”

Streets in Newcastle were named after him, and he was said to have revived wood engraving from “slovenly stamps” to “haunting images of depth and subtlety”.

Cherryburn lies at Mickley, close to Eltringham. The current house was built after his death by his brother. Bewick’s birth was in the low building behind in February, 1763.

Mr Atkinson described, quoting from Bewick’s memoires, how he was a boy of spirit, the “hope and despair” of his father, often getting into fights, playing truant and incurring numerous beatings from teachers and father alike.

His father was a mine owner and farmer, who sent Thomas to school at Mickley, where he was taught by ‘Shabby Rowns’, who believed in corporal punishment. On one occasion when he was subjected to ‘hugging’, whereby he was held down over another boy’s back for a beating, he kicked out with his iron-hooped clogs and broke the boy’s shin, then ran off and played truant.

He spent his time in woods and vales, drawing at every opportunity. Thomas drew on gravestones, on his slate, and on any surface he could lay his hands on.

In despair his father sent him to the local vicar for classical education until he was 14.

Through a family connection, an apprenticeship was arranged with the Bielby Brothers, a firm of engravers. Ralph Bielby became his master and £20 secured his seven-year apprenticeship.

Despite being delighted with the chance to put his drawing skills to use, Thomas said “my heart was like to break” when he had to leave the rural surroundings of his home.

Newcastle was an important provincial centre for publishing and the work of engravers was in demand. At the workshop, at Amen Corner, off ‘Side’, an apprentice had to swear ‘not to fight, swear, gamble or betray trade secrets’. Fighting was to prove the hardest to avoid, and early on he got into a fight and had to be held down by three lads. He was described as a “wild boy”, over 6ft tall, muscular, with hands like shovels. He almost lost his position.

Thomas was often given tasks in wood engraving, metal engraving being Ralph Bielby’s forte and considered the more professional craft. It was in wood engraving that he came to excel. He carried out illustrations for Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood as his earliest commissions.

The work started with a small drawing on paper, then a soft lead (graphite) would be applied to the box wood block, before the drawing would be traced through to leave a silvery line on the block. The lines were then cut away for the white parts of the engraving. Lettering was done in reverse as the finished print was a mirror image of the cut. Such were Bewick’s skills that he quickly learnt to dispense with tracing and draw directly onto the wood.

His early commissions were Charles Hutton’s treatise on mensuration at St Nicholas’ Church nearby (“tolerably well-cut”), and the famous A Child’s Alphabet, comprising 26 thumb-sized engravings with an image from wildlife for each.

In 1774 Bewick moved back to Cherryburn and began his own work. He won a national competition for his engraving Hound and Huntsman, and rather than accept a medal, took seven guineas, which he presented to his mother. His style often included humour, which endeared him to the public.

On a walking tour two years later, Bewick was introduced to beer and thereafter drank five pints a day for the rest of his life. He spent two years in London, “a torrid time”, returned to the North East with relief and went into partnership with Bielby. The firm of Bielby and Bewick lasted for 20 years, when it was dissolved after a disagreement.

Bewick developed a strong social conscience, supporting the anti-slavery movement. He depicted on the front cover of their magazine an engraving with the words “Am I Not Now a Brother”. He joined a debating society at Swarthy’s Club in Newcastle.

But at heart Bewick was always a countryman and thought nothing of walking the 12 miles home to Cherryburn every weekend.

He was always close to his mother, and when she died in 1785 he married the love of his life, Isabella Elliot, ‘Bell’, with whom he dwelt in “uninterrupted happiness”, having three daughters and a son.

The best known Bewick engaving is The Chillingham Bull, a comparatively large woodcut commissioned by Marmaduke Tunstall, of Wycliffe, Yorkshire, in 1789, for which he charged seven guineas. It was described as “an icon of the North” by Simon Sharma. A bronze replica can be seen in Bewick Street.

The quadrupeds followed in 1790, then his most perfect depictions of natural life, his two-volume Birds. There were 600 cuts for these, with 200 tailpieces.

Bewick continued until the end of his life, depicting a huge range of rural scenes, imbued frequently with wit and humour, such as his brother being shown pulling a horse’s tail and his mother dashing to the rescue.

Mr Atkinson succeeded in giving us a detailed picture of Bewick as a man of vigour and dedication, wit and talent, which delighted his audience.

Our next speaker will be Tony Henfry, with Biddlestone Chapel and the Selby Family, at 7.30pm on October 14. This will be followed by an outing to the chapel on Sunday, October 17, at 10.30am.