Linton- Life in the Collections
28) Thomas Bewick, 1753-1828: Artist, Naturalist & Radical (Our History Pamphlet No. 25).
Raymond Watkinson was a Marxist art historian and teacher, specialised in the Pre-Raphaelites and the Arts & Craft movement. In this pamphlet he challenged Ruskin’s romantic image of the artist who had popularized wood engraving as being an “untaught instinctive genius, the unlettered country boy with a flair for drawing beasts and birds and charming rustic scenes.” Instead, Watkinson detects Bewick as a member of various radical debating clubs in his hometown Newcastle, a city that “was not only important for its coal industry, but as a principal centre for the whole Border country, and a stage on the journey to and from Scotland.” Newcastle had been a hotbed of British radicalism from the times of the Jacobite revolts. Jean Paul Marat had lived there for some years and published his The Chains of Slavery. Watkinson sleuths Marat’s traces to the various radical debating clubs, in which Bewick and his friend Thomas Spence had been involved. “Whether Bewick himself met Marat we are not likely now to know; but it is clear that many of his immediate seniors and associates did; and the engraver’s later comments on the French and American Revolutions, and on social and political institutions generally, show that he had deeply absorbed the ideas Marat propagated.” The list of Bewick’s radical friends, which Watkinson provides, is long. Besides the notorious proto-communist Thomas Spence, who was the most influential figure in the history of British Jacobinism next to Thomas Paine, he also refers to the radical bookbinder Gilbert Gray and the lawyer and Unitarian reformer James Losh.
“Clearly Bewick was not only a Radical, but a convinced one, and a leader of progressive thought in his home town. Like Cobbett, of whose Political Register he was a faithful reader, he had a deep vein of nostalgia for a peasant past; he was suspicious, too, of the idea of universal suffrage (though he pays warm tribute to Major Cartwright). Yet he would have rejoiced at the Reform Bill, which was passed four years after his death.” Although Watkinson sometimes obviously overstrains Bewick’s radical impetus, his research had provided expedient material for a revaluation of the politics of wood engraving. But unfortunately the sticking power of modernist debasement seemed to have been strong enough to prevent this, and what is more, the image of Bewick as a politically aware artisan, which Watkinson had revealed, couldn’t stand up to the public need for nostalgia. Only recently, Bewick was newly discovered as a reflective contemporary of the French Revolution.