Melton prior Institut


Linton- Life in the Collections

Thomas Bewick:

3) A General History of Quadrupeds.

Newcastle 1790 / 1807

The fifth edition of 1807

It was the trained copper engraver Thomas Bewick from Newcastle who popularized the art of wood engraving in the late 18th century with his groundbreaking animal encyclopaedia illustrations. Most of them were single block engravings, which on the white of the paper preferably opened up in the form of an edgeless oval, comparable with the prints from pinhole photographs of early cameras. Tom Lubbock drew a parallel between the hallucinatory effects of Bewick’s vignette art and the projections of a laterna magica. By isolating the miniature scenes without a frame on the paper ground, Lubbock stated, Bewick abolished the classical, partial window view of the Renaissance. Although the vignettes of the Bewick School, especially the highly imaginative tailpieces, usually depict lively sceneries full of action, they are characterised by the impression of a distance of time and of static that they convey. They show frozen miniature worlds in the manner of a snowglobe universe.


For Linton, the simplicity and inventiveness of Bewick’s white-line technique was an ideal to which any form of an artistic renewal of xylography had to revert, for the works of the early Bewick School were not yet corrupted by the division of labour and mechanisation, but counted as examples of creatively handling the technology. However, the rural idyll that Bewick had evoked in his engravings represented the prettified picture of old paternalistic England that political radicals like Linton used to attack vehemently. Accordingly, Bewick’s animal encyclopaedia illustrations were monopolized soon after their publication by feudal romantics in England and abroad, among others, by Weimar privy councillor von Goethe and his artistic advisor, Johann Heinrich Meyer, who in their periodical Die Propyläen (1798) recommended Bewick’s engravings particularly for their cuteness and pleasantness. In his history of xylography, The Masters of Wood Engraving, Linton characterised this loyalist signature with the slightly contemptuous attribute of “homely”, and, in doing so, he not only referred to the ideal, old-fashioned world of Bewick’s engravings but also to the slightly naive style of drawing and engraving. He countered this with a greater keenness of observation, increased directness in his graphic translation, and a greater variability in his own engraving work.