A Memoir of Thomas Bewick written by Himself

Item author: Thomas Bewick (1753-1828)
Item date: 1862
Grant Value: £2,500
Item cost: £5,000
Item date acquired: 2017
Item institution: Birmingham University
Town/City: Birmingham
County: West Midlands

Thomas Bewick (1753-1828) is well known for his illustrated books British Birds and Quadrupeds, but in his work as a professional engraver over a 50-year period he produced a wide range of material – book illustrations, bookplates and newspaper advertisements, as well as engraved silver, clock-faces etc. Interest continued in Bewick’s work through the 19th century and up to the present day, his work being republished, sometimes pirated, collected and studied by bibliophiles. Thirty-four years after his death his daughter saw his autobiography (the Memoir) through the press. To cater for the ‘Bewick collectors’, Jane Bewick prepared ten copies of the Memoir that were interleaved with blank pages, on to which she pasted proof impressions taken in Bewick’s workshop, also copying out poems and accolades to her father.

One of these ten copies has recently acquired by the Natural History Society of Northumbria with substantial help from Friends of the National Libraries. It includes 112 proof impressions, plus a three-page manuscript about Thomas Bewick’s works, two handwritten poems and some notices about Thomas’s brother John and son Robert (both of whom were engravers).

The proof impressions were part of the heritage of the Bewick business. Proofs were taken as a routine part of engraving; Bewick kept thousands of them and his daughter was able to draw on this stock for illustrating this copy of the Memoir. They cover a fascinating range of the workshop’s output. The earliest prints were made in the 1770s for John Gay’s Fables and the latest in 1826 for an edition if British Birds. There are representatives of Bewick’s varied output for book production, including academic texts and children’s books, some advertising cuts for newspapers and bookplates. Some of Robert and John Bewick’s work is also represented, including an example of the last commission John undertook before his early death. Overall the additions are interesting as a selection by Bewick’s daughter of the skilled work of her father, uncle and brother.

Recent research into the varied output of the Bewick workshop enables us to identify some of the rarer and more obscure cuts. For instance:

  • A charming group of dogs that was commissioned for the title page of A Domestic Treatise on the Diseases of Dogs (1810); the proof has a border that was removed from the woodblock before it was used for the book.
  • Some high-quality early proof prints from Quadrupeds and British Birds; one (a shrew) is captioned as ‘first proof’.
  • Five bookplates that are not listed in the monograph Bookplates by Beilby & Bewick.
  • Prints from some rare publications, including John Hewlett’s Introduction to Reading and Spelling (1786), Dyche’s A Guide to the English Tongue (1785) and Mrs Norton's Story Book (1790).
  • Two rare ephemera: an engraved watch-paper and a copper-plate engraving produced for the Newcastle-upon-Tyne Fire Office (made for use as a heading on an insurance policy).
  • Some cuts that are so obscure that they have yet to be identified. One of these shows a fox dressed as a cleric and reading from a bible. Obviously intended as a satire, it might never have been used.

The book has much potential use for researchers, and is well placed in a library that is developing as an important resource for Bewick scholars.

Portrait of a Shrew, from 'Bewick's Quadrupeds'. Courtesy of the Natural History Society of Northumbria.
Portrait of a Shrew, from 'Bewick's Quadrupeds'. Courtesy of the Natural History Society of Northumbria.